The writ for the Ontario election drops Wednesday morning, and the three major parties have all taken their first shot at framing the "ballot question" – the prevailing choice or contrast that they want Ontarians to take to the voting booth
And every contrast needs a "them" – a bogeyman held out to scare the electorate's children, from which the candidate or party offers safe harbour.
For the governing Liberals, the "them" is not so much a person as an idea or a frame of mind. As Premier Dalton McGuinty writes in the introduction to the Liberal Party's platform, "there are two choices. The first is to try to recreate a low-skills, low-wage economy where you produce cheap goods that can be made anywhere. The second is to develop a high-skills, high-wage economy where you produce goods the competition can't make."
Here, the bogeymen are (1) the foreign competition; and (2) those stuck in the past, more misguided than ill-intentioned, who oppose the Liberals' policy innovations (wind energy and education investments come to mind). It's oblique, not particularly scary, but it does neatly capture both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP in the same critique.
The Progressive Conservatives are much more clear: For them, the bogeyman comes in the singular person of Dalton McGuinty, the Tax Man (if, that is, you consider red inflatable elephants harbingers of doom). They are seizing on the relative unpopularity of Mr. McGuinty, considered in the most recent Nanos poll to be "best premier" by only 29 per cent of the electorate (ahead of the PCs' Tim Hudak, but a poor showing for an eight-year incumbent; Bob Rae was at 30 per cent on the eve of his 1995 defeat).
It's gotten very personal, very quickly; PC candidate Andrea Mandel-Campbell unapologetically called Mr. McGuinty a liar on Monday. A vote for a leader like Mr. Hudak, goes the argument (and the visuals: Mr. Hudak is omnipresent in his party's literature), saves you from an inevitable tax increase from Mr. McGuinty.
The New Democrats are the most conventional in this respect. As in past campaigns, and in imitation of their federal cousins, they have set the people against the powerful, with a pocketbook-driven platform funded by money redirected from "corporate tax giveaways, CEO pay hikes and consultant contracts."
What's striking about the contrasts drawn by the Liberals and PCs, is how little they have to do with party ideology, and how distracting they can be from a clearer-headed view of the campaign.
The Liberal message is in many ways an incumbent's message, stressing accomplishments and managerial competence. But it takes a bit of scraping to see the ideological stance underlying it, an ongoing issue for a centrist party led by a wonkish premier.
The PC attack on Mr. McGuinty would be more convincing if Mr. Hudak's leaderly ways were on fuller display, instead of sheltered behind sound bites. It is also hard to square the image of the bogeyman with the fact Mr. Hudak is embracing many of the bogeyman's policies (on health and education, and, indeed, on taxes – the PCs now accept the Ontario Health Premium and the application of most of the Harmonized Sales Tax).
The main parties want to tempt you and scare you. But you too may have your own ballot question – and despite what the parties want you to believe, there's likely no bogeyman lurking under your bed.