With seventeen days remaining before the June 12th Ontario election, the Northern leaders debate between Andrea Horwath and Kathleen Wynne was an opportunity for two of the three party leaders to have a dry run for the planned June 3rd debate. But Tim Hudak’s absence coupled with the question and answer format (read: no real debate) delivered up more of a structured conversation than a rock’em sock’em battle. If the PCs were hoping for a knockout punch from Horwath – one that might also resonate with southern voters – they would have been disappointed.
What was clear, both from the questions asked by the panel and by the two leaders’ handling of the answers, is that regardless of which party forms the next government, northern issues will figure prominently in both the politics and the economy of Ontario over the next several years. The Ring of Fire, electricity supply and cost (watch for our blog on this, coming soon), transportation infrastructure, revenue sharing with First Nations and skilled labour supply dominated the discussion. Wynne’s commitment to continue to have three north-focused ministries (Natural Resources, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and Mines) will resonate with northern Ontarians less concerned about government deficits than they are about the cost of living, jobs and quality public services.
With so few seats, the North won’t be a deciding factor in the outcome of the election on June 12th. That said, the region’s role in kick-starting a slow Ontario economy – with the promised billion dollar investment in a transportation corridor to the Ring of Fire and upgrading the electricity generation and transmission system to better serve remote communities –  means northern Ontario may get the attention it feels it deserves if either of these two women lead the next government. Today’s debate demonstrated that Wynne and Horwath are essentially reading from the same playbook when it comes to their commitment to the North. So what will be the contrast? For voters, it will come down to who is the most likely to deliver on their commitments. Our assessment: after the debate, those who watched may feel no closer to the answer.