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The election: Is this the best Ontario can do?

September 29th, 2011 ·

By Geoffrey Stevens

This should be the most exciting Ontario election in many, many years.

For starters, the fight is desperately close. The polls all tell us this – and they can’t all be wrong.  All three parties are viable. Two, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, have approximately equal chances of forming the next government while the third party, the New Democrats, is poised the wield the balance of power when neither of the old parties wins a majority on Oct. 6.

Yet a campaign that should be exciting instead is discouraging, even depressing. The thought that kept coming to my mind during the leaders’ debate on Tuesday night was: Is this the best Ontario can do?

The leaders, even Andrea Horwath at times, seemed more intent on fighting past elections and old battles – whether Dalton McGuinty’s promises in 2003 and 2007 or Mike Harris’s cuts to hospitals and schools between 1995 and 2002 – than on addressing  the very serious issues (economic growth, provincial debt, job creation, an ageing population, cost of living and environmental degradation, to mention a few) that the government must address when the last ballots have been counted next Thursday.

It has seemed to me throughout the campaign, especially during the leaders’ debate, that the parties are more concerned about singing to the choir, to locking up their own base support, than they are about reaching out to swing voters or attracting the votes of independents. The election has become a defensive game, fought between the blue lines, with no one daring to break away for a shot on goal.

Getting out their own vote is more important than growing that support.

Each of the leaders was desperately anxious not to make a mistake in the debate – and they all succeeded in achieving that exceedingly modest objective. They stuck resolutely to their scripts, to the talking points they and their candidates have been wedded to since the election began. For example, Tim Hudak’s attack on McGuinty over the harmonized sales tax was virtually word-for-word the same as the attacks I had heard coming from the mouths of Conservative candidates in Kitchener-Conestoga, Cambridge and other ridings. This repetition – or lack of originality – did nothing to enhance the message’s impact.

A lack of spontaneity has become one of the hallmarks of the election. So is lack of vision. Why – why? why? – couldn’t the leaders (or at least one of them) relax a bit or unbend enough to offer a personal vision of the Ontario they want to create? And to tell voters how far along that road they hope to carry the province by 2015 when their mandate ends?

They don’t have to be eloquent, although that would be nice. They don’t have to have a John Diefenbaker “Northern Vision” or a Pierre Trudeau “Just Society,” but they need something to raise the Ontario electorate out of its lethargy. A little passion would go a long away. (Petty arguments over job-creation statistics just don’t cut it.)

Not least, why is there no humour in this election? Why are the leaders so determined to reinforce the popular perception of Ontario politics and politicians as the most boring in Canada? Which, frankly, they are. Did someone make it illegal to have fun in Ontario? Is excitement banned from Ontario politics?

Ontario in 2011 needs a Tommy Douglas, a John Crosbie, a Stephen Lewis or even a (young) Bill Davis instead of the “same old suits” as Horwath labelled McGuinty and Hudak.

So who won the debate? No one, really. McGuinty, who was on the defensive throughout, reminded me of a hyperactive kid with a peashooter as he fired off statistics that no one will remember. Tim Hudak gave the impression of auditioning for the role of opposition leader, not premier.

Andrea Horwath may not be quite ready for prime time, but if “winning” means exceeding expectations, then she “won.” But, I ask again, is this the best Ontario can do?

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

(published Sept 29, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

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