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Ontario Premier and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, second right, is joined by MPPs, Liberal candidates and supporters as she runs along the waterfront in Toronto on Monday, May 19, 2014, as she continues her election campaign. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Premier and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, second right, is joined by MPPs, Liberal candidates and supporters as she runs along the waterfront in Toronto on Monday, May 19, 2014, as she continues her election campaign. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

DARREN KARASIUK

What Ontarians are looking for in their political leaders Add to ...

Darren Karasiuk is vice-president, strategy at Environics Research Group

Who would make the best premier of Ontario? This kind of question is a staple in public opinion research. Leaders matter, and voters pay attention to the human beings political parties choose to represent them.

To shed light on leadership questions in Ontario, Environics recently conducted a comprehensive survey about leadership in general and, more specifically, what the province’s voters are looking for in a premier. Not surprisingly, the two topics are connected: Ontarians’ opinions about who would make the best premier rest on some underlying ideas about what makes a good leader.

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Some leadership qualities transcend partisan divisions. Honesty and integrity, for instance, are seen as basic requirements for any leader. More than a third of Ontarians named honesty and integrity as the most important leadership traits – and this preference varied little from Timmins to Toronto, or among supporters of different candidates.

When we move beyond basics like honesty, supporters of each of the three major party leaders hold different views about the ingredients of good leadership.

The 18 per cent of Ontarians who believe Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak is the best choice for premier are more likely than others to value grit: tenacity, determination, and strength of purpose. When asked which words come to mind when someone says “leader,” Hudak supporters also mention decisiveness and strategy. More than 30 per cent of them name Winston Churchill as the greatest leader in history.

Supporters of NDP leader Andrea Horwath – 13 per cent of Ontarians – are more likely to admire leaders with a humanitarian bent, who show concern for others and stand up for justice. For Horwath supporters, leadership means being a compassionate role model. Not surprisingly, these Ontarians are more likely to mention Tommy Douglas or Pierre Trudeau as great leaders.

For the 23 per cent of Ontarians who believe Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne is the best leader on offer, a leader is a visionary: someone who has charisma, communicates well, and has the ability to motivate others. For Wynne supporters, a leader is a motivator and a mobilizer. These Ontarians also stand out in naming Pierre Trudeau as a great leader from history.

Not everyone has a favourite in the provincial race. More than four in 10 Ontarians, when asked which major party leader would make the best premier, reject all three (27 per cent) or express uncertainty (19 per cent). (This finding dovetails with the fact that more than 70 per cent of Ontarians believe Canada is facing a political leadership crisis.)

What is this undecided plurality of Ontarians looking for? Like other Ontarians, the uncommitted value honest and integrity – but these are even more important priorities for the uncommitted than for supporters of any of the candidates. Undecided voters are also more likely to be looking for an intelligent role model, someone with a strong work ethic who gets things done and shows dedication to the province and their job. Whoever can best demonstrate these qualities will have an edge in securing the support of the plurality of the population who, as of now, are not convinced by any of the candidates on offer.

How well are the party leaders lining up with voters’ expectations and desires? Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak are both playing up the visionary qualities that appeal to Wynne-leaning voters. Wynne says she will “Build Ontario Up” for future success and Hudak says “Hope is on the way” in the form of his “Million Jobs Plan.” Wynne has also offered some of the grit favoured by Hudak-leaning voters, with ads showing her as a dogged long-distance runner, or making bold, straight-to-the-camera critiques of her opponents’ positions.

Andrea Horwath gone on the attack, calling Liberals wasteful and corrupt, and asking voters to put them “in the penalty box.” With her message that only the NDP “makes sense” (the other parties offer “nonsense”) and that only she will “protect your tax dollars,” her scrappy campaign contains echoes of right-wing populist campaigns gone by, perhaps in recognition of Ontario’s emerging segment of NDP – Conservative swing voters. Her throw-the-bums-out tone may attract some Ontarians who are undecided or turned off, but might not do much to inspire a base that is looking for care and compassion.

A final note on those tantalizing undecided voters: they stand out on another measure. The undecided are much more likely than other Ontarians to have no idea what they’re looking for in a leader. Perhaps they’ll know it when – or if – they see it.

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