Ontario voters got plenty of what, and not enough why, in Tuesday night’s televised leaders debate.
Are you swayed by the facts? That’s what Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty seemed to be banking on in his surprisingly defensive performance. It was a blizzard of data – value of energy contracts secured; number of post-secondary spots opened; rank of Ontario as a job creator – that would make a McKinsey consultant proud, all conducted with symphonic gesticulations by an excitable incumbent premier.
Or is it earnestly-told personal stories? Then the NDP’s Andrea Horwath – whose gamut of misery included one dead Ontarian (thanks to closed emergency rooms), one in need of life-sustaining medical devices (but those might have to be unplugged, because of high hydro bills), and one injured teenage son (her own), left with an untreated fracture after an unfortunate skateboarding accident – might be the leader for you.
Or do you reward discipline above all? If so, then choose Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak – who pivoted easily from attacks on Mr. McGuinty’s record to his own promises, who delicately modulated the emotional temperature in the TV studio as he recalled the medical dramas of his daughter, and who speaks in clipped sound bites.
Of course, voters want facts, stories and discipline. And they also want something else that none of the leaders convincingly delivered: motive.
Communicating motive – answering the question “Why do you want to be premier, why should you be premier, and why shouldn’t the others be entrusted with the job?” – ought to be easy, but during a debate, it’s easy to shift off course.
Too close a devotion to their chosen mode made it hard for each leader to connect.
Mr. McGuinty deployed perhaps the greatest volume of facts to justify his (continued) premiership. But he made the least of them. We heard too many data points, and not enough of the connections and contrasts, of which he had to draw two: in response to the Tories, that Mr. McGuinty is the best prepared and most willing to defend public services; and in response to both opposition party leaders, that he has the most vision to lead Ontario’s economic transformation, despite some of the pain and uncertainty being felt today.
Ms. Horwath raised her game, displaying more confidence in talking about her party’s plans than in previous appearances. Of the leaders, she did the best job of linking her policy cures – tax increases for big businesses, tax cuts for everyone else – to her motive, to make life easier for Ontarians.
But voters’ expectations of a premier are rich and complex. They may well extend beyond Ms. Horwath’s ambitions to stop some cherry-picked health-care horrors or to use tax changes as a cure-all.
Mr. Hudak’s hit his lines – effective ones, like asking Mr. McGuinty why his “big ideas” always hurt “average families.” His attack on Mr. McGuinty’s trustworthiness on taxes had a practiced boldness. But Mr. Hudak offered less in response to why he wants to be premier. And he didn’t display the looseness, the willingness to stray from the talking points, that displays motive and shows a bit more of the person behind the putative premier. Mr. Hudak wants Ontarians to warm to him – but it takes more than message discipline to do that.
With the health-care system and a shaky economy dominating the agenda of a majority of voters, the leaders need to perform that classic act of political alchemy – turning fear into hope. If none of them did that to voters’ satisfaction, voters can at least thank them for one thing. They now know a little bit more about the leadership styles, with contrasting focuses on facts, stories and message, of those who would lead them.