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Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews, left, listens as Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa delivers the 2014 budget next to Premier Kathleen Wynne at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews, left, listens as Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa delivers the 2014 budget next to Premier Kathleen Wynne at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Engaging the unengaged a huge challenge for politicians Add to ...

The sense of urgency should be palpable.

From its large and growing deficit to its persistently grim employment figures, from smaller towns at risk of being hollowed out by the decline of manufacturing to larger cities choked by congestion, Canada’s largest province is at a crossroads as it enters its election campaign.

Globe and Mail Update May. 02 2014, 1:18 PM EDT

Video: What party leaders need to prove to voters in the upcoming Ontario election

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But this is Ontario, where fewer than half of eligible voters bothered going to the polls the last time they were given a chance to choose a premier. So the big question, as politicians hit the hustings, is whether and how they will be able to engage the country’s most unengaged provincial electorate.

For the three major-party leaders and their candidates, that engagement is not just a matter of altruism – it’s a political imperative. This campaign will be at least as much about motivation as persuasion, because when voter turnout is so low to begin with, a party can win by getting more of its potential supporters to bother casting ballots.

To the extent they will try to do so through broadly articulated policy positions, there is some cause for encouragement. Unlike the last time they competed against each other, a turgid 2011 campaign in which everyone danced around Ontario’s major issues, at least two of the parties appear poised for a compelling debate on the pivotal question of how to grow the stagnant economy.

As evidenced by the budget they delivered Thursday, which will now serve as their campaign platform, the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne are all about economic interventionism. They prefer deficit spending to taking money out of the economy while it is still struggling, want to spend billions upon billions on new infrastructure projects, and are proud to provide subsidies to attract investment or keep employers in the province. The Liberals would also lump their central pitch of a new provincial pension plan into this equation, arguing it asks Ontarians and their employers to make a small sacrifice now to avoid economic and social disaster down the road.

While Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives have not yet released their platform, everything they have said in the past couple of years – including through a series of white papers – suggests they favour almost the diametrically opposite approach. They want to significantly shrink the size of government, reduce regulation and end direct business supports so they can cut corporate and other taxes. Philosophically, they believe the more government gets out of the way, the faster the economy will grow.

Complicating matters is Andrea Horwath’s NDP, which at present has few economic policies at all, beyond raising corporate taxes and giving tax credits to employers in return for new hires. Believing the electorate has little appetite for policy ambition, the New Democrats have mostly focused on populist pitches such as lower auto-insurance rates. It’s a strategy that all but rewards Ontarians’ cynicism and complacency, although that’s not to say Ms. Horwath’s likeability couldn’t help her reach some corners of the electorate that might otherwise tune out.

The other, obvious wild card is the scandal that has dominated Queen’s Park for much of the past couple of years. The gas-plants mess could be enough to get Ontarians excited about coming out and voting for the opposition parties; it could also make for the ugly sort of campaign that prompts some voters to declare a pox on all their houses.

While the party leaders go at it on these and other issues, much of the engagement effort will be happening far from the campaign buses. Simply making contact with Ontarians is harder than ever, among other reasons because fewer can be reached by home phone and declining civic engagement makes it difficult to find volunteers to knock on doors. Now, we’ll find out how far the parties have advanced in their frantic efforts to develop new, technologically advanced ways of identifying and motivating target voters.

Such attempts can cut either way, alerting voters to key issues or distracting from them, and what happens on the ground the next six weeks will merit close attention. But given what’s at stake, it will be hard to fault the parties for doing whatever they can to wake up their province’s sleepy electorate.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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