If desire for change is the most potent force in politics these days, momentum is the most unpredictable one.
No one can predict when momentum will begin to build, how far it will go, or when it will end.
Heading into Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, it was clear that momentum in the Ontario election had shifted, dramatically, from the Progressive Conservatives to the New Democrats. But no one could predict whether the momentum would be enough to carry Andrea Horwath into office, or whether it would stall or even shift again before June 7.
Horwath did not need to “win” the debate, the most meaningful three-way encounter of the campaign. But she did need to withstand the double-barrelled attack of Doug Ford and Kathleen Wynne. She needed to avoid making a ghastly mistake, and to emerge still standing as an attractive alternative.
Although recent opinion polls show a clear trend toward the NDP and away from the PCs, most of the results are close. Conceivably, the NDP could win the popular vote, yet finish behind the Tories in seats. That’s largely because party support is unevenly distributed across the province. And if the Liberals retain enough of their strength in the GTA and southwestern Ontario – as they may – the result could be the election of Conservatives in places that would otherwise go NDP.
To backtrack, the PCs are experts in losing momentum, having made blunders that cost them the election in 2007 under John Tory and again in 2014 under Tim Hudak.
They are poised to three-peat in 2018.
For months, all of the momentum was with the Tories. It gathered force under the flawed leadership of Patrick Brown, who moved the party to the left. It survived Brown’s self-immolation. It survived a defective leadership process in which Christine Elliott, the members’ choice, was denied in favour of newcomer Doug Ford, a pseudo populist, who yanked the party to the right.
Despite a blustering campaign that betrayed the new leader’s inability to grasp provincial issues, the PCs continued to dominate the opinion polls, rising so high that a few reckless pundits predicted they would enjoy the greatest landslide since the days of Leslie Frost.
That’s not going to happen now. The choice of Ford shapes up as the ghastly mistake that has derailed the Tory campaign.
I think what happened about two weeks ago was that voters, initially obsessed by a desire to get rid of the Wynne government and to end 15 years of Liberal rule at Queen’s Park, started to notice the alternatives.
Horwath appeared calm and reasonable. In Ford, they saw a leader who did not look or sound like a premier. He was too belligerent, too in-your-face, too contemptuous, too slow to reveal his agenda yet too quick to create policy on the fly. For a professed “man of the people,” he displayed remarkably few people skills.
Setting aside the issue of corruption in the nomination of party candidates – some of it Ford’s responsibility, some his predecessor’s – Ford did not present himself as a potential premier who could be trusted to govern wisely, with a steady hand and in best interest of all Ontarians, especially those who do not hail from “Ford Nation.”
Speaking of that nation, while Ford may not know how to manage the province’s finances, he is sure he knows how to satisfy his base. He promised at the weekend that, as premier, he would mandate a reduction in the retail price of beer to $1 a bottle.
If he thinks “One-Buck Beer” is the path to power in Ontario in 2018, he is either desperate or out of touch with reality. Worse, he is insulting the intelligence of the voters. They know that what Ontario needs is affordable housing, an end to “hallway medicine,” decent incomes for all, and equal access to opportunity in education and employment. Life is complicated. Issues are real.
Cheap beer for all is just a cheap election bribe.