No knockout blows in the first Ontario leaders’ debate

Anyone hoping for a historic “knockout blow” in the first all-party leaders’ debate of the 2018 Ontario election campaign would be disappointed.

Airing the evening of May 7th on Toronto-area cable network CityNews, the debate focused entirely on issues of importance to Toronto voters including transit, policing, safe injection sites, and home ownership.

In a departure from past debates, the three party leaders (Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Liberal Party; Doug Ford, Progressive Conservative Party; Andrea Horwath, Ontario New Democratic Party) spoke without podiums or notes, sparring over the issues of cuts, care, and cronyism.

While Andrea Horwath and Kathleen Wynne took turns attacking Doug Ford and promoting their platforms, Ford took the opportunity to make a key policy announcement on a $5-billion investment over and above what the government has already committed to transit in the GTHA region, saying he would build a true regional transit system including subways, relief lines, and two-way GO service “all the way to Niagara Falls.”

Their best moments + what they need to improve for the next debate

Kathleen Wynne

The Premier showed a clear command of the facts and kept her cool in the face of attacks from her two opponents, outlining her track record and effectively landing her “care not cuts” campaign slogan. At times, observers felt that she may have been relying too much on “laundry lists” of the government’s achievements, potentially missing opportunities to connect with the viewing audience on an emotional level.

Doug Ford

Ford effectively worked in his key campaign talking points about the province’s record levels of debt, high salaries for Hydro One executives, the need to find efficiencies in government spending, and various attacks on Liberal insiders. His “Ford Nation” base would not be disappointed by the substance of his message. However, some observers noted that he appeared nervous and hesitant—not the Doug Ford viewers have come to expect—and that he may need more preparation to appear “Premier-like” for voters in the next debate; however his momentum going into the debate likely caused the more faithful viewers to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Andrea Horwath

Many commentators on TV and social media believe that Andrea Horwath was the top performer in the debate because of her warmth and calmness. Where sometimes the other two leaders strayed into back-and-forth debates, Horwath was effective in zeroing in on the audience’s questions, replying with empathy and emotional connection. She was also able to land her key contrast lines about voters not having to choose between “bad and worse,” and that her party offers voters “change for the better.” For the next debate, Horwath will need to ensure that she is not left on the sidelines during conversations between Ford and Wynne. Some have noted that NDP leaders typically perform well in all-party debates because they are able to surpass low expectations due to the media’s primary focus on the Liberals and PCs outside of election time. Horwath will need to ensure that the novelty doesn’t wear off in the upcoming debates as more and more voters start to pay attention.

What was the key takeaway?

Tonight’s debate drove home the fact that this election will be won and lost in the battleground GTA, where all parties are competitive and where a number of new ridings have been created. In what is decidedly a “change election,” Premier Wynne will continue to skate the fine line of defending her government’s fifteen-year record while also making her case for how her party’s platform offers voters the positive change they crave. PC leader Doug Ford’s populist campaign rhetoric will draw the most distinct contrast with the unpopular Wynne government making him the default change agent, while NDP Andrea Horwath is likely to impress more and more voters who consider themselves progressive, but have grown tired of the governing Liberals and the baggage they have accumulated over their fifteen years in power. It’s a change election.

This is a campaign that will matter, and H+K will continue to provide insights and analysis over the coming month to help answer your questions about what this election means for you.