On Thursday, TVO will host the first of two Progressive Conservative leadership debates, in which candidates Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, and Caroline Mulroney will spar (verbally, we hope) over their plans for the party’s future. (The Tories have said there will be another debate before March 2, when balloting begins.) Here are a few things to keep in mind during the debate and after.
Details don’t always matter
When TVO hosted a PC leadership debate in 2009, the most contentious issue was Tim Hudak’s proposal to dissolve the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal — something then-candidate Elliott said would be “toxic” for the party’s chances in the 2011 election. Both Elliott and MPP Frank Klees were opposed to Hudak’s proposal, while MPP Randy Hillier (who has endorsed Elliott in 2018) thought it didn’t go far enough.
Hudak won the leadership, but his proposal was nowhere to be found in the 2011 PC party platform — and it didn’t appear in the 2014 platform, either. For all the energy Hudak and his rivals devoted to it in that debate, the idea was never actually pitched to Ontario’s voters.
The contenders this week may have some sharp disagreement on policy (or not; it turns out they all oppose the carbon tax former leader Patrick Brown made central to his platform), but there’s nothing that says a set-to over policy will mean much after the leadership race is done.
How much will experience count?
Ford has been on televised debates, thanks to his 2014 Toronto mayoral run. Elliott has been a PC leadership candidate twice before. But Mulroney formally entered electoral politics just six months ago, with her nomination as a PC candidate for the riding of York–Simcoe. She’s unquestionably the novice of the bunch, and TVO’s studios are a pretty public venue in which to learn on the job. It wouldn’t be surprising if she were still shaky with her responses either to questions from moderator Steve Paikin or to her leadership rivals.
That said, Brown was, at best, an uneven public speaker when he beat Elliott, and his performance during the 2015 leadership debate was hardly a knockout. Yet he easily won the nomination race all the same.
The Ford Factor
Doug Ford was not, to put it mildly, a subdued character in the 2014 municipal election. He attacked John Tory for living a life of privilege and for having had things handed to him “on a silver platter”; he proclaimed that he’d effectively acted as “co-mayor” with his brother, the late Rob Ford; then he tried to defend Rob’s history of anti-Semitic remarks by saying that he himself employed Jewish doctors, lawyers, and accountants.
Of course, 2014 was a long time ago now, and Ford has promised to run a respectful campaign. This debate will be a significant and very public test of that pledge: Will Ford be able to hold his tongue? Or will one of his opponents successfully bait him into saying something profoundly unfortunate?
And if they do, would it even matter? Despite 2014’s parade of unpleasantness, Ford still got about as much of the popular vote as polls predicted his brother would have received before dropping out of the race. People know what the Ford brand means, for better or worse.
It’s not just Ford whose conduct will be worth watching. One effect of ranked balloting — which is how the Tories will select their leader — is that winners have strong incentives to reach out to the supporters of other campaigns in order to increase their support on the second ballot. As long as this stays a three-person race, all the campaigns will be trying to figure out where the support for their rivals is softest, and how to lure people over to their side on the second ballot.
Elliott is the one to watch here, as her conduct in the debate may give observers a sense of which of the rival Tory camps she hopes will bleed enough support to put her over the 50 per cent threshold. Does she strike a moderate (or even progressive) tone to appeal to people who might be looking at Mulroney as a potential fresh face for the party? Or does she lean to the right in order to build a bridge for Ford voters to cross?
Please, no zingers
This is less an observation or prediction than a plea: please, for the love of God, no canned attempts at getting the best clip out of the debate. Ronald Reagan was able to sell “There you go again,” but the odds are very good that if you’re reading this, you’re not Ronald Reagan, nor are you a public speaker of his calibre. The smart play is to simply try not to embarrass yourself, and to hope that your rivals do worse than you.
TVO will stream the debate live on February 15 at 4 p.m. on Twitter Periscope. The full debate will air on The Agenda with Steve Paikin at 8 p.m. and again at 11 p.m. It will also be streamed on Facebook at 8 p.m.
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