Let’s acknowledge the obvious right off the top: Premier Kathleen Wynne had the hardest job of the three major party chiefs going into last night’s leaders’ debate.
After nearly 15 years in office, the Liberals have a lot of barnacles clinging to their ship of state. You knew Wynne would be on the defensive for most of the night. And the luck of the draw meant she was positioned on stage between her opponents, adding to the sense that she was taking fire from both sides.
But Wynne has another problem that is simply part of her DNA. You could see it in almost every answer she gave throughout the course of the City TV debate.
The premier is a policy wonk and a hands-on politician. She considers it a personal point of pride that, if you asked her what the top 30 issues facing the province were, she could give you a dissertation on all of them, off the top of her head, without glancing at a single note.
Wynne’s deep knowledge of the issues was apparent every time she sparred with Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford, whose lack of in-depth understanding of the complexity of issues was obvious.
Unfortunately for the premier, leaders’ debates are rarely about who knows more stuff. The debate format prizes snappy soundbites that can be played on the news or used in campaign ads. Debates are almost always about conveying an impression.
So while Wynne patiently tried to explain the nuances of police carding, or how to provide better autism services, or how to create more affordable housing, Ford taunted her with barbs about “the Six Million Dollar Man” — a reference to Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt’s salary.
No, firing Schmidt wouldn’t save Ontarians any money on their electricity bills. In fact, thanks to a golden-parachute clause, firing Schmidt would cost Hydro One an additional $10 million. But none of those facts mattered in the face of a good one-liner. Ford knew that — and he had some good lines.
I’ve watched the premier do politics ever since she got elected in 2003, and it is in her character to believe that she can bring anyone over to her side of the argument if only she can get a chance to explain things logically.
But, again, debates are rarely the place for logical conversation. NDP leader Andrea Horwath understood the theatrics of the evening and brilliantly repositioned herself when she wanted to ignore Wynne and frame the election as a choice between Ford and herself. And when Ford and Wynne tangoed, Horwath would sometimes stand off to the side and point to the pair with a knowing look on her face, as if to say: “See? What did I tell you?” She managed to portray herself as something different and new — even though Horwath has fought more elections as a party leader than Wynne or Ford.
What I’m about to write I’ve never discussed with the premier before. But it is an educated guess at what she thinks. And it illustrates why she must find debates so frustrating, even though they are an unavoidable part of campaigning.
Only someone who’s been the premier of Ontario — the second-toughest job in Canadian politics — can truly understand how utterly complicated and all-encompassing the gig truly is. Wynne understands it all too well. In two weeks, she’ll pass David Peterson as the 11th-longest-serving premier in Ontario history (out of 25). And I don’t think she believes her opponents are in any way up to the job.
Last night, when Wynne looked to her left, I think she saw an NDP leader who was a confident performer but not ready to be the next premier. At one point in the debate, she accused Horwath of “magical thinking,” of being out of touch with reality. And when Wynne looked to her right, she saw something that, I believe, to her mind is even worse: a leader who’s only been on the job for a few months and hasn’t got the first clue about the intricacies of running the $150 billion corporation that is Ontario Inc.
Wynne knows she’s unpopular. She knows that few observers think she’s got a chance to win this election. And I suspect she is unhappy about the prospect of losing to either of her major opponents, neither of whom she seems to respect very much. It must be frustrating to have what you see as your strengths turned into weaknesses and what you see as your rivals’ weaknesses turned into strengths by the television debate format.
That is not a happy place to be in politics. The good news for Wynne is that expectations for her and her party are extremely low, she loves to campaign, and she truly believes in her gut that, whether or not she’s good at TV debates, she’s got the message and the platform that the times require.
Since we live in a parliamentary democracy, she’ll have the next 29 days to lay it all out there and let the chips fall where they may.
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