Kathleen Wynne has given the whole country a peek at how Liberals run against Stephen Harper. Expect Justin Trudeau to repeat it next year.
The Ontario Liberal Leader faces a less-than-charismatic opponent in Tim Hudak but spent the first week of her campaign fighting Mr. Harper. She needed a special kind of bad guy: a cold calculator who refuses to lift a finger to help economically vulnerable Ontarians. That’s how she painted Mr. Harper, because she thought many voters would believe her.
She did it because she is, in a sense, running on the economy. She’s trying to turn that into an empathy issue, about who feels Ontarians’ anxieties about making ends meet. The federal Liberal leader, Mr. Trudeau, is planning to do that, too.
All three federal parties are lending operatives and watching closely because they know they can’t win a federal election without a strong showing in Ontario, notably the 905 and 519 area codes.
It features a PC party that, as with the federal Conservatives, is promising to manage the economy better, using restraint. The NDP is trying to find economic arguments that win suburbs. And the Liberal Party is trying to harness Ontarians’ economic anxiety, without making it a debate about who’s better at managing. For the first week, Mr. Harper was the foil.
Ms. Wynne picked an issue that plays off Mr. Harper, arguing Ontario needs to create its own public pension plan because he won’t protect Ontarians’ vulnerable retirements. Just look at the way she described Mr. Harper in a Toronto Star interview: She said he “smirked” at the suggestion of expanded pensions in a private meeting and said “people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
It helped when Mr. Harper stepped in to say the Conservatives have created tax-break accounts that help people save for their own retirements. That appeals to conservatively minded voters, but it allows Ms. Wynne to suggest he won’t do anything for the many who still worry they won’t be able to retire decently.
That’s where Mr. Trudeau’s federal Liberals are going, too. Many of their barbs at Mr. Harper are not so much aimed at painting him as incompetent on the economy, but out of touch.
When a New York Times website published an article indicating Canada’s middle class is the most affluent in the world, the Conservatives said the “good news” put the lie to Mr. Trudeau’s assertions that Canada’s middle class is suffering. Some Liberals said privately they wished the Tories would repeat that more – so anxious Ontarians hear the Conservatives tell them they are doing fine.
When Mr. Trudeau rose in the Commons to complain about the temporary foreign workers program, he highlighted that many went to struggling Ontario towns, such as London and Sarnia, suggesting the Tories are out of touch with the real economy. The latest Liberal ad, meanwhile, preaches that Mr. Trudeau is focused on “your job, your retirement, your kids’ future.” In other words, they’re claiming he cares, and Mr. Harper doesn’t. Just like Ms. Wynne.
Will it work? It seems like a long shot for Ms. Wynne. After a decade in power, and a spate of scandals, Ontarians generally want the Liberals out. An Ipsos-Reid poll released Friday found 72 per cent feel it is time for a change of government.
On Friday, Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak seemed to play into her narrative by announcing plans to cut 100,000 public-service jobs. Now Ms. Wynne can paint him as the insensitive one. But it will only work if those who don’t like Mr. Hudak’s plans coalesce behind the Liberals, rather than splitting to the NDP’s Andrea Horvath. Mr. Hudak, meanwhile, has given conservative voters a red-meat reason to vote.
But in a federal election, Mr. Trudeau can try the same tactic with a clean slate. Polls show Mr. Harper is rated as the better economic manager. Liberals claim Mr. Trudeau is better positioned, through personality, to be the empathy candidate than either the PM or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.
Mr. Harper, however, has a better hand to respond. He’s projecting budget surpluses that will allow him to promise big tax cuts. He can argue, as he has since the campaign that brought him to power, that promised tax cuts like these prove that Conservatives really do care about Canadians’ pocketbooks – they’re the only party that cares enough to return some of their tax money.
The question is whether it’s a cut that affects enough people to persuade them he’s got their real concerns in mind. After all, Ms. Wynne has already shown him how the Liberals will go after him on the economy: not by telling voters he’s incapable, but telling them he doesn’t care enough to help them.