Just before prime time tonight, television in this neck of the woods will be taken over by the Ontario party-leaders’ pre-election debate (CBC, CTV, Global, CHCH, TVOntario, 6:30 p.m.).
It’s the season for leaders’ debates (there are provincial elections imminent in Manitoba, PEI, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador), and this one could be a doozy. With the Ontario polls suggesting a very tight race between the Liberals, the PCs and the NDP, a tipping-point moment is in the cards. And with only nine days before the main polls open, an impression created tonight will stick until people vote.
Television can be cruel to politicians. It exposes slip-ups and hesitations, and highlights them. It doesn't only favour the handsome and the slick – it can help someone who's neither young nor handsome but is self-deprecating, witty and unrepentantly confident. Politicians can look ridiculous on TV, but only if they are obviously nervous about looking ridiculous. TV helps those who are on a quixotic quest. It doesn't help those who are tired and defensive.
With a race so tight and with an opportunity to achieve a decisive edge, it’s likely that Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty will do his well-practised premier-dad routine. Steady hand, reliable. Nice, but firm. If the dad-thing is not your bag, he can seem like the benign manager at work, the one who doesn’t get his kicks from kicking you around. McGuinty’s problem is that while the premier-dad routine works, he tends to appear high-handed and coldly uncaring once he’s in office.
This Ontario campaign began with a vague but overwhelming media-fed impression that the province is fed up with McGuinty. Nothing to nail him with, just a hazy impression of dislike. This is an ideal circumstance for McGuinty’s TV skills, such as they are. Look for him to address the camera directly, smile and appear sincere, a bit removed from the bickering and attacks swirling around him. Incumbents do best when they engage with the viewer/voter, not with the pesky wannabe bosses around them.
McGuinty’s best aid might be PC leader Tim Hudak, a man whose devotion to “Ontario families” is fanatical, we are told in ads and speeches, but who gives the impression of being a tad demented. His campaign has had the air of one long lament denouncing Ontario for its wickedness and general lack of moral fibre. Recently he lectured, grim-faced, about “foreign workers” benefiting from a Liberal plan. This is the sort of toxic language that has resonance online among those who engage in puerile blogging and attack newspaper columnists with snide sarcasm. It won’t work on TV and if Hudak brings it up, he’s toast. The persona he needs to establish – that of a leader, not a mere complainer – is hindered by the suggestion of divisiveness.
The impression of Hudak formed by TV appearances so far is that of a man with a firm grasp of talking-point memos and a liking for punishing others. Back in the summer he was all in favour of prisoners forming chain gangs to clean graffiti and rake leaves along highways. That would bring the tourists, wouldn’t it? Hey Martha, look at the criminals raking the leaves. On second thought, Martha, let’s get the hell out of here. Those are hardened criminals wielding rakes in a public space.
Look for Hudak to repeatedly attack McGuinty, trying to provoke a reaction. Moral outrage will abound. McGuinty’s advisers will be telling to him to give the impression that he, and by extension Ontario, rises above such nastiness.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath is, we are told, a very warm person. We are told this, but her campaign, as experienced by anyone following the election on TV, has been ramshackle, far from emphatic about the leader’s persona or NDP policies. Ms. Horwath’s photo-ops for the TV news have looked curiously hesitant, more hokey than adept at emphasizing hot-button issues.
Expect her to inject some wit and attempt to be down-to-earth tonight. Nervousness must be overcome, and if McGuinty and Hudak bicker, she’ll try to sashay up the middle, all common sense and worker-wisdom.
It is a truism that this election, like most now, is really about jobs and the economy. Diversion from that core issue is always a mistake. It is also a truism – I've said it before and I'll say it again – that he or she who understands TV wins.
The leader who appears to have a direct connection with the viewer – the invitation to collaborate that you’d accept – is the winner. Pay no attention to political pundits after the debate. This is about the use of television and stagecraft, not policies and statecraft.
ALSO AIRING TONIGHT
Glee (Fox, Global 8 p.m.) has guest star Idina Menzel returning to McKinley High. Whatever. The most compelling thing this season is Quinn (Dianna Agron) and her new look. Oh, that pink hair. The other day I saw online: “Quinn's New 'Skank' Look on Glee: Hot or Not?”
Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays (CBC, CTV 9 p.m.) moves to Tuesdays this week. Makes sense. Tonight Michael’s phobia about vomit is the issue. Don’t be afraid. It’s all in fun.
Check local listings.