Yesterday evening at Toronto’s TVO Broadcast Centre, the leaders of Ontario’s four major political parties faced off in the last official debate before the June 2nd provincial election. Doug Ford (Ontario Progressive Conservative Party; PC), Andrea Horwath (Ontario New Democratic Party; NDP), Steven Del Duca (Ontario Liberal Party; OLP), and Mike Schreiner (Green Party of Ontario; GPO) each had the opportunity to promote their parties’ platforms and vie for the attention of undecided Ontario voters, in a debate that will likely set the tone for the remainder of the provincial election campaign.
The debate was also a primetime debut for two party leaders: Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who took the reins of the OLP over from former premier Kathleen Wynne in March 2020, and GPO Leader Mike Schreiner, who represents the first time the party is represented in an official debate following his election to the Ontario Legislature in 2018.
The debate was divided into four main subject areas: the economy, health, education, and leadership. Each theme contained specific questions directed at the leaders, as well as opportunities for one-on-one and open debate.
H+K’s Ontario Public Affairs team has identified five major takeaways from this debate:
1. Opposition parties want to remind voters of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the PCs want Ontarians to focus on the future.
After nearly two-and-a-half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, with affordability concerns now at the forefront of voters’ minds, next month’s election may be less of a referendum on the Ford Government’s handling of the pandemic than many once expected. Throughout the debate, however, Del Duca, Horwath and Schreiner attempted to change this by harkening back to the early days of the pandemic and some of the Ford Government’s more controversial decisions, including management of the pandemic in long-term care, attempts to reopen the province prematurely ahead of the Spring 2021 wave, and the rapid about-face on the closure of playgrounds and enhanced police powers to enforce provincial stay-at-home orders. The NDP, Liberal and Green leaders also reminded parents of how COVID-19’s impact on schools disrupted their lives and accused the PCs of privatizing long-term care and surgical procedures.
In a moment that is sure to resonate with some debate watchers, Ford acknowledged that his government’s handling of COVID-19 “wasn’t perfect” and that they “didn’t get everything right,” but that every decision was made with the best intentions and best available medical advice. Unlike his opponents, Ford’s emphasis – both within and beyond the topic of health – was on the future, consistent with the momentum-oriented themes of his campaign: recovery, building, and moving the province forward.
2. Steven Del Duca is still trying to introduce himself to the public – but not all his points landed.
Steven Del Duca continues to take every opportunity to introduce himself to the public. He has a few weeks to show the public who he is and why they should buy into his vision for Ontario. With recent ads he has tried to show a more personal side demonstrating he is a proud family man facing many of the same issues all Ontarians face. During the debate last night, Del Duca hoped to demonstrate that he is a strong leader and opposition to Doug Ford by positioning himself as having a plan to address affordability, education, and health care, contrasted against his view of the Ford PCs as the party with gimmicks and cuts to important services.
However, a large hurdle Del Duca must overcome are his ties to the previous Wynne government. He spent considerable time defending against attacks from Ford and Horwath on that record and, while one might expect Del Duca to try and distance himself from some of the perceptions of the previous Wynne government, he pointed to that experience often during the debate and was forced to spend considerable time defending those policies. Del Duca did have a standout moment as he passionately spoke about public education policy and Ford’s respective record, pointing to the deployment of rapid tests to private schools while public schools faced rations as an example of a government that may favour private education over public. The Liberal Leader also managed to land a strong attack and what will most likely turn into a sound bite: “your record on public education, Mr. Ford, is an embarrassment and you should be ashamed of yourself for what you’ve done to kids across this province.” It was arguably his strongest moment during the debate, but his other rebuttals and attacks did not meet the same threshold.
3. The Liberal-versus-NDP battle for the Left continues.
The polls leading up to the debate suggested that the Ontario Liberals have the best chance to defeat the Ford PCs, setting the stage for the question left-of-centre voters must answer: should the NDP and OLP come together strategically to support the highest polling party to forge a strong opposition to the Ford PCs? Or do the parties battle each other fiercely at risk of splitting the progressive vote and risk handing the PCs to an easier win?
The latter seems most likely according to a quote from Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca directed at NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, “every time you attack me … Doug Ford smiles.” Horwath spent more of her time attacking the Liberal government from 2018, than criticizing the present-day government she opposes. Liberals seem focused on contrasting themselves against a Ford government, but it’s clear strategic voting will once again be the hallmark of progressive campaigns, with the push most likely coming from the NDP.
4. The topics dominating Election 2022 are a departure from previous Ontario elections.
Issues largely absent from the debate, but staples of previous campaigns, were energy costs, transit expansion plans, crime, and balanced budgets. While energy dominated the last campaign, where the PCs famously committed to reduce rates by 12 per cent, hydro issues have not gained traction despite affordability as a major theme. The PCs have said their actions have managed rising costs and reduced prospective rate increases by 12 per cent. Opposition parties have focused on retrofit subsidies or more renewables, suggesting an agreement that rate reduction may be out of reach as well. On transit, despite a tradition of debating which projects to pursue, the parties have declined to criticize Ford’s capital plans, implying political consensus on Ontario’s transit expansion future.
5. The leaders (mostly) agree on which issues will be top of mind for voters at the ballot box but present very different plans to address these challenges.
Throughout the debate, each party leader spoke to their party’s solutions to the many challenges facing the province. While there were many similarities, the parties emphasized their differences to make the case to Ontarians why they deserve their vote on June 2. The leaders diverged the most on infrastructure projects and ways to address the increased cost of living.
Doug Ford and the Ontario PCs stressed the importance of building infrastructure such as Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass to reduce traffic delays in the GTA. He also emphasized his plan to jumpstart the economy by making Ontario the electric vehicle capital of North America through investments in auto manufacturing and a critical minerals strategy.
Ford’s plans, particularly Highway 413 were criticized by all the opposition leaders as unnecessary and environmentally unfriendly. Instead, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said he would spend that money on building 200 new schools, while Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner talked about the need for affordable living communities.
The cost of living and housing were key points of contention for all parties, heated exchanges early in the night. To address the issue, Premier Ford noted his party’s plan to cut the province’s gas tax to provide relief from soaring gas prices, removing fees for license plates and increasing the housing supply to bring down the cost of homes.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was particularly critical of both Premier Ford and Steve Del Duca for not taking action on rent control and touted her plan to build affordable housing throughout the province and the need for higher paying jobs.
While all leaders started off shaky, they did become more comfortable as the evening went on, providing opportunities for some heated exchanges. Although all parties have claimed victory in tonight’s debate, none of the opposition parties achieved the knock-out punch needed to overcome Premier Ford’s strong lead in the polls.
Campaigns matter and the only poll that counts is on Election Day, so all parties will be heavily focused on Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) efforts as the province heads into advance polls beginning Thursday of this week. There is still time for the Liberals or NDP to mount a real challenge to the Ontario PCs, but that window is quickly closing.
Authored by members of H+K’s Public Affairs + Advocacy team including Stephanie Dunlop, James Lin, Shanice Scott, Sarah Dickson, Matt Boudreau, Melissa Pasi.