National Post writer Joseph Brean is profiling the three key Ontario party leaders ahead of the June 2 election. He starts today with Andrea Horwath.
Like football fans in England (last World Cup 1966), and hockey fans in Toronto (last Stanley Cup 1967), Ontario NDP voters have a way of keeping their hopes up during dry spells.
It can happen, they tell themselves. It has happened. Just look at Bob Rae. Everyone loves Bob Rae.
Sometimes, as in the last election in 2018, they get a taste of victory, and become the Official Opposition. But like the Leafs making the playoffs, this partial victory just threatens grander disappointment.
For Andrea Horwath, the big question of Election ’22 is how long they will keep letting her lose elections.
So far, it is not looking good.
She makes a strong pitch for an affordable life in Ontario. Her delivery is polished and at ease, earnest and straightforward, attentive and sharp. She released a platform before even seeing the strategically delayed budget, the better to capture attention in the unstable early days of the race. And although NDP voting intention numbers are trending up, polls generally have the party trailing the Liberals, whose third place finish in 2018 was a historically bad outlier result.
Horwath polls a bit like Jagmeet Singh, her federal counterpart. Her favorability score at 41 per cent is higher than any of the other party leaders. But she is well behind Steven Del Duca and Doug Ford in voting intention, and barely one Ontarian in 10 expects her to be premier. People like her. They seem to trust her. They just don’t vote for her, and they don’t think other people will either.
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This polling as of May 3 painted a picture of Horwath’s run as “a campaign too far” that might have been better fought under a new leader, said Andrew Enns, executive vice-president of Leger, a polling firm. A survey on voting intentions put the PCs at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 29, and the NDP at 25, although a later Leger poll showed the two opposition parties tightening a bit.
Horwath is the beneficiary of Liberal votes parked with her party in the last election, but polling averages suggest she is now at serious risk of losing those seats and falling back to the NDP’s historical third place baseline.
A danger for her campaign is how easy it is to focus on the past, on the Progressive Conservative resc performances in health care, long term care, and the plight of the working poor, even apart from the pandemic. Enns said the risk is that this “comes off as the same old same old,” and even if it is justified, it is a weak strategy for gaining ground against the PC’s emphasis on the future.
There has been a bit of that. The pandemic showed us “just how broken everything is,” Horwath said as she launched her platform with what she called a “bold progressive vision” for a government that works for people. They’re not asking for the moon and the stars, she said, just leadership that understands what they are going through, “and they haven’t had that in a while.”
Dressed in blue in a bit of a jab at the PCs, with white sneakers and a go get ’em energy, she promised to fix health care, reduce wait times, hire nurses, bring mental health into the provincial health care plan “so you use your health card and not your credit card. ”
She pledged to control rent and protect tenants. She got a prolonged standing ovation for her pledge to “scrap bill 124,” on public sector pay. She said public employees deserve good faith bargaining from their government.
She lit up the crowd with the claim that, in Ford’s Ontario, the wealthiest corporations thrived in the pandemic as the working poor suffered. This got the crowd chirping its assent.
“Doug Ford’s priority has always been his buddies,” she said. “We’ve all paid the price for that.”
It was a current criticism of Ontario’s government, but coming from Horwath, it also felt a bit like watching cable news in 2011, when she first made these pitches as a party leader. Soon enough, you change the channel.
Horwath is one of four children born to Diane, a telephone operator and cleaner, and Andrew, an assembly line autoworker who immigrated from Slovakia. She has a son with her former partner Ben Leonetti.
She studied labor at McMaster University and got into politics early. After a strong second-place showing as the federal NDP candidate in Hamilton West in 1997, losing to the Liberal candidate in Jean Chrétien’s second majority win, Horwath was elected to city council and re-elected twice.
She came to Queen’s Park in a 2004 by-election landslide in which she more than doubled her party previous vote share. She has been an Ontario NDP leader since 2009, the party’s first female leader.
After the 2011 election, her party held the balance of power in a Liberal minority, but lost it after the Liberal majority win of 2014. She held her seat count steady, though, which was not the first time a technical loss would be considered a win for the plucky New Democrats, always the critics, never the ministers.
When the Liberals were decimated in 2018, Horwath nearly doubled her seat count to 40, with 33 per cent of the popular vote, and became Official Opposition. This was the party’s most victorious election loss yet. It got them thinking that one day they might even win.
Early in this campaign, Horwath has campaigned confidently and easily, almost charmingly, slapped down questions that probed too closely for details. She turns the table on journalists, using their own tricks, throwing their words back at them, such as in one press conference question about her “lofty” goals and her vision for “a more affordable life in Ontario”
This was an invitation to higher rhetoric, but she played it straight “I don’t think that’s lofty,” she said. Another journalist suggested hers is basically a Liberal budget, and asks how she differentiates her party vision?
“They had 15 years, Mike, they had 15 years and they didn’t fix these things,” Horwath told the reporter. It got some applause, but a dig at the Wynne Liberals is looking so far back you have to squint. Weirdly, it also has her sounding just a little bit like Doug Ford.
For Horwath’s NDP, campaigning against the Liberals is a sign of desperation. Her big problem, perhaps her last as leader, is that it is also necessary, because they are on track to replace her party as Official Opposition.
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