As Ontario's election campaign enters its final 10 days, hurtling toward an unwieldy minority legislature, the elephant in the room is becoming impossible to ignore.
The next government faces dramatic restructuring of public services to cope with a stubborn deficit at a time of major economic turbulence. Dalton McGuinty's Liberals and Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives are running neck-and-neck while Andrea Horwath's New Democrats are a competitive third, but none of the three seem able to budge their numbers. The final week-and-a-half, kicked into higher gear by Tuesday's leaders debate, will be their last chance to determine which party – or combination of parties – is best suited to the task.
Through a sort of conspiracy of silence, all three leaders have thus far pretended that challenge doesn't exist. "I would think I've fulfilled my quota of asking Ontarians to do difficult things," Mr. McGuinty said in an interview Sunday, citing his imposition of a harmonized sales tax and pursuit of expensive energy policies. The other leaders heartily endorse that analysis, both promising a combination of pocketbook relief and improved services – which Ms. Horwath justified on Sunday, as she released the optimistic costing for her platform, on the basis that "everyday families are under more pressure in Ontario than ever before."
Instead of levelling with voters about their own intentions, the parties have spent much of the campaign making up secret agendas on each other's behalf – the Liberals accusing Mr. Hudak of planning cuts to core services, the Tories claiming Mr. McGuinty is champing at the bit to raise taxes.
In fact, this campaign is less about secret agendas than non-existent ones – all sides transparently believing that campaigning and governing are two separate things, and the latter can be figured out once the former is over with.
The Liberals and the Tories, possibly even the NDP, are secure in this belief largely because they're banking on a public-services review headed by former bank economist Don Drummond to point them in the right direction. Mr. Drummond's commission is expected to propose controversial reforms – including ones required to flatten growth in health spending. Even recommendations in less sensitive areas would probably require considerable upheaval of the public service.
Mr. Hudak expressed interest Sunday in what Mr. Drummond proposes, provided it's not tax increases (which Mr. McGuinty also insists he has ruled out).
It will require a strong-stomached premier to implement such reforms – or conversely, to create new sources of revenue. And it would need an incredibly deft one (not to mention an unusually pragmatic and responsible Opposition leader) to get that done in the event of a minority government. If instead those decisions were punted down the road, it could potentially plunge the province into a full-fledged crisis.
Among the challenges for the leaders in the next 10 days will be to prove to voters – those who pay close attention, at least – that they have what it takes to get the job done.
In Mr. McGuinty's case, that will involve positioning himself as the only adult in the conversation – a "steady hand on the tiller," as he put it Sunday. It's much the same case Stephen Harper made in last spring's federal election, but with a stronger expressed faith in the power of government.
For Mr. Hudak, it will be about positioning himself as the only leader with a real respect for taxpayers' dollars – potentially a winning argument as voters worry about how much value they're getting for their money. And he will continue trying to present himself as young and hungry, relative to Mr. McGuinty's allegedly out-of-gas Liberals.
Ms. Horwath, meanwhile, will try to present herself as a different sort of politician, more positive and in touch with the needs of everyday people – a pitch the NDP hopes will convert the goodwill toward the late Jack Layton into support for her. She's pinning many of her hopes on her ability to strike a different tone from the other leaders in Tuesday's debate, although her tentative performance alongside Mr. Hudak in a Northern-issues debate last Friday did not go unnoticed, even by some New Democrats.
"Our responsibility is to turn to Ontarians, consult them, listen to them," Mr. McGuinty said in the interview. He was referring to tough decisions that will be made by the government down the road. But the next 10 days are voters' chance to shape those decisions, even if the leaders would prefer to pretend otherwise.