The sharpest blows in the Ontario leaders’ debate came from the candidate with the least chance of winning the provincial election.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, who went into the debate with the least to lose, unsettled Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford in their direct exchanges with an approach that was both disarming and pointed.
Even if Schreiner’s performance doesn’t translate into any extra seats for his party on June 2, it could still have an influence on the overall election result if it gives Green candidates enough of a bump in the polls to make a difference in tight races. That would not likely be a good thing for either the Liberals or NDP.
Both Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath needed to make Monday night into a turning point in the campaign. Each had a mission to prove to those voters who don’t want Ford to get a second term that only they can defeat the PCs.
It’s far from clear that either one accomplished that.
Schreiner seizes opportunity
For Schreiner, his party’s first-ever appearance in a province-wide televised debate provided a chance to make an impression on the biggest audience he has ever had. Schreiner seized the opportunity, speaking in a clear, digestible way and capitalizing on his outsider status in an effort to appeal to voters who are cynical about the other more established parties.
One of his digs at Ford: “He will roll out the red carpets for the Amazons of the world and the big box stores of the world, but when it comes to supporting local farmers, he’ll pave over their farmland.”
In response to Ford saying his government was “taking care of” nurses, Schreiner confronted Ford with a series of powerful questions.
“Mr. Ford, have you talked to a nurse lately? Have you talked to a nurse about how disrespected they feel, how overworked and underpaid and underappreciated they are? How insulted they feel being called heroes and then essentially having their wages cut by having them frozen?”
While Schreiner went on, the debate’s split-screen format also showed Ford, and his discomfort was palpable.
Ford keeps his cool, mostly
Meanwhile, Ford mainly accomplished what he needed to do in the debate, which was not to lose his cool.
Ford’s objective was “do no harm to yourself or your party brand,” said Shakir Chambers, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategies who worked on the 2018 PC campaign. In a post-debate discussion on CBC Radio, Chambers said Ford pivoted to talking about what he wanted to talk about, rather than taking the bait from his rivals.
Ford did actually take the bait a few times, perhaps most spectacularly when Del Duca slammed him over education.
The Liberal leader called Ford’s record on education an embarrassment and said he should be ashamed of himself. Ford’s response was to describe Stephen Lecce as the best education minister ever.
Liberal strategists had told me that Del Duca would use the debate as an opportunity to show Ontarians that Ford is not really on the side of the little guy.
Yet in his first head-to-head with Ford, on the topic of economy and affordability, Del Duca never mentioned the PC leader’s early-pandemic decisions to allow big box stores to stay open while small businesses had to shut.
Del Duca lists off bullet points
Liberal campaign advisers acknowledged that Del Duca needed to bring more passion to the debate stage than he had shown previously. For a guy whose emotional tenor has generally fallen in the range between flat and calm, Del Duca did show some relative fire in the belly Monday night. But was it enough to galvanize soft NDP voters to stampede toward the Liberals?
Del Duca at times listed off bullet points from his platform in such a rapid-fire way that it’s hard to see how it would appeal to the average voter. He was also stuck spending a lot more time on the defensive than he would have wanted to, forced to fact-check Ford on the fly when the PC leader stretched the truth with some of his portrayals of the Liberals’ past record and current platform.
For people who’ve wondered why the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been a bigger issue in the campaign, the debate clash over this topic provided one of the most memorable moments of the evening.
Pressed by Del Duca over the government’s April 2021 decision to close playgrounds and give police extraordinary powers, Ford’s tone became defensive.
“Folks, was everything perfect? No, it wasn’t perfect. But if there was an issue, I’ll get up there, I made a change, I apologized,” Ford said, then turned to address Del Duca.
“For two-and-a-half years, literally 24/7, I was working on this pandemic. It’s easy to sit back from the sidelines when you didn’t have to make the tough decisions I had to make,” Ford said.
Del Duca shot back: “Mr Ford, respectfully, this is the job that you signed up for four years ago.”
Few punchy lines from Horwath
Meanwhile, Horwath seemed to be struggling to create those punchy lines that will get picked up on the TV news highlight packages and amplified on social media, a key measure of debate success.
Horwath did break through by charging at Ford on education. “Your cuts and your chaos destabilized our education system,” she declared. “Ask any parent and they’ll tell you the same thing. You can’t cut to a better education system.”
But the force of Horwath’s attacks on the night were also diluted by her need to go after Del Duca, in the NDP-Liberal war of attrition for progressive voters.
“I understand why you don’t want to talk about the 2018 election because you only retained seven seats,” Horwath shot at Del Duca as the 90-minute debate neared its end.
“Every time you attack me, as you’ve done for the past year, Doug Ford smiles,” Del Duca said to Horwath.
Ford and his campaign team are likely smiling a lot right now.
That’s because, with little more than two weeks to go until election day, he has a lead that the CBC News Ontario Poll Tracker puts at eight percentage points, his two main rivals are pretty much splitting the anti-Ford vote and neither of them shone as brightly as the Green Party leader in the debate.