Gas plants and folksy anecdotes: a few running themes from last night’s Ontario leaders’ debate

Gas plants and folksy anecdotes: a few running themes from last night’s Ontario leaders’ debate

(Image: Horwath: Andrea Horwath/Facebook; Wynne: Loralea Carruthers/Facebook; Hudak: Ontario Chamber of Commerce)

In Tuesday’s Ontario leaders’ debate, the single most high-profile event in this month’s provincial election, PC leader Tim Hudak, NDP leader Andrea Horwath and premier Kathleen Wynne mostly stuck to the same few talking points that they’ve been hawking to voters since before the writ dropped. This made for bad television (more than a few CBC viewers must have turned on their sets expecting programming a little more intellectually stimulating, like Just For Laughs Gags or Coronation Street), but as political theatre it was occasionally very good. Here, a few key things we took away from the fracas.

Tim Hudak will resign if his “million jobs plan” fails
He didn’t define “failure,” and so even if elected he’d probably always be able to find ways of not fulfilling this promise. Even so, he said it. “I’m so confident my plan is going to work,” he declared at one point, “that if I don’t actually carry through on my plan…I’ll resign. I’ll step down from office.” The move seems like a calculated bid to boost confidence in the “million jobs” aspect of the PC platform, which has been criticized as unrealistic and mathematically flawed. But there you have it: if Hudak creates only 900,000 jobs (or, you know, zero jobs), he’s out of there.

The gas-plant scandal is still a key pressure point
At several points throughout the debate, Hudak and Horwath essentially tag-teamed Wynne. As weaponry, they used the Queen’s Park equivalent of a folding chair to the head: the gas-plant scandal. An early question about the Liberals’ proposed Ontario pension plan turned into an opportunity for the NDP and PC leaders to kvetch in stereo about the billion-or-so dollars wasted when the plants were cancelled. Hudak even managed to pivot back to the topic during a question about energy. “One of the reasons…that your hydro bill has gone up, is because of the gas-plant scandal,” he said. Later, he asked Wynne, “What do you regret most about your shared legacy with Dalton McGuinty?” In Ontario politics, that’s like asking someone when they stopped beating their wife.

Tim Hudak is full of anecdotes
The general consensus among political commentators is that Hudak won the debate. Part of the reason for that perception is that he, of the three candidates, was the most in control of his behaviour. While Wynne at times seemed ready to crack under the verbal assault from her two competitors, Hudak deflected tough questions using a time-honoured technique: he told folksy personal anecdotes instead. “My grandfather’s family lost the family farm during the Depression,” Hudak said at one point, in response to a question about cuts to provincial programs. “He always told us to spend within our means.” During a question about how his party would improve education (which might be a tall order, considering his pledge to reduce employment at the province’s school boards), Hudak referenced his daughter Miller and told an anecdote about his high-school graduation.

Steve Paikin is a good moderator
We’ve seen some badly moderated debates lately, which made Paikin’s performance all the more impressive. When candidates began talking over one another, he played traffic cop. In his humble-but-assertive way, he kept everyone to their allotted speaking times. When the debate ended a little sooner than expected, he even came out with some jokey patter to round out the 90 minutes. The guy is a pro.

Kathleen Wynne is very sorry about Dalton McGuinty
Wynne is perceived to have lost the debate, and one reason for that is that she spent a lot of it apologizing for things that happened while her predecessor was in office. “I was…part of a government, and I was part of a cabinet that made decisions that were not right,” she said after Hudak had finished hectoring her about the gas-plants scandal. At another point, Wynne apologized to Horwath for the McGuinty government’s handling of Ontario’s teachers’ unions. “It went wrong, you’re absolutely right,” Wynne said.

Election day is June 12.