'People don't trust government anymore," Andrea Horwath said as she unveiled her long-awaited platform on Thursday morning.
The Ontario NDP Leader offered this assessment in reference to the consequences of Liberal scandals. But if she had been looking to describe the calculus behind her party's policy agenda, she could hardly have put it better.
Let nobody say that New Democrats in this province are the starry-eyed idealists they were once considered. On the contrary, under Ms. Horwath's leadership they have become the most pessimistic of Ontario's parties in how they see the electorate, and perhaps the most cynical in how they present themselves to it.
In their own ways, both Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and (especially) Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak have displayed a willingness to challenge Ontarians. The former is asking them to take dollars off their paycheques to fund a new provincial pension plan; the latter is proposing a dramatic downsizing of government to eliminate its deficit, which he presents as essential to restoring economic competitiveness.
Ms. Horwath will have none of that. She appears to have very little interest in significantly changing existing policy, to the extent that if elected she would more or less reintroduce the Liberal budget her party rejected – minus the pension plan, which was its biggest break from the status quo.
Proposals in her platform that could be considered remotely bold – a slight increase to the corporate tax rate, a merger of several energy utilities, a tuition freeze – can be counted on one hand. Otherwise, her policy goals tend to be both impossible to argue with and difficult to take seriously based on how she has backed them up.
On health care, for instance, she vows to cut emergency-room waiting times in half mostly by hiring an extra nurse practitioner or two per hospital, and to miraculously ensure nobody waits longer than five days for homecare by spending an extra $30-million a year. Then there is her plan to eliminate the deficit, identified during her remarks as a top priority, which primarily involves appointing a new "minister of savings and accountability" to figure out how to go about it.
At first glance, the document she presented on Thursday, which uses large font and a lot of whitespace to fill its 11 pages, looks like a shoddy rush job by a party that forced an election without having much clue what it intended to run on. But there is little reason to believe that, even if she'd had more time to prepare, Ms. Horwath would have come up with something more substantive.
For years now, her approach to policy has revolved around a few assumptions. One is that New Democrats need to shed their reputation for being too ambitious about the power of government, and will never suffer for being seen as not ambitious enough. Another is that the public's faith in politicians of all stripes is so low that there's merit in being less ambitious than the other parties. A third is that she can trump the other leaders as a likable fresh face, and it's best not to confuse that by getting too into the weeds on policy.
The election strategy to which that has led her could yet pay off. If voters are looking for change from the Liberals, but nothing as dramatic as what Mr. Hudak is proposing, Ms. Horwath could appear to represent a low-risk alternative.
Most polls suggest, though, that so far in the campaign she has struggled to be taken seriously as a potential premier. As unenthused as many Ontarians are about their government, Ms. Horwath may have underestimated their expectations for someone who would lead it.