Politics is a bone crushing, spirit sucking, contact sport that takes no prisoners and it peaks when the combatants come together for the obligatory ritualized winner take all televised debate. You have to have thick skin, know no shame and be lucky. Watching Dalton McGuinty get mauled the other day for an hour-and-a-half on prime time television was painful. John Tory won the debate because expectations were low and he performed well. Dalton lost because expectations were higher and he was mortal with baggage. He had to defend “the broken promise” reality and his opponents didn’t have to defend much of anything. They weakened the premier, but didn’t knock him out.
As I write this I have no idea what impact the debate will have on the election campaign. Sometimes even though you lose the debate, you win the spin because you get favourable TV clips for a couple of days that bear no relation to the tenure of the contest. Sometimes you win the debate, but people don’t really care because they are more concerned about wedge issues like privatized health care or religious schools and nothing is going to change their mind pro or con.
What distorts politics is that debates aren’t really debates. They are carefully scripted theatrical performances designed to define your opponents and avoid being defined by your opponents. Why? Because the only thing that matters is what you and I are thinking about when we go to the ballet box.
If we are thinking about “broken promises” we will vote for John Tory. If we are thinking about “private health care or the implications of funding religious schools” we will vote for McGuinty. Well, that’s the theory and that explains the preponderance of negative ads and the amount of time the politicians answer questions they weren’t asked, or say the same thing 50 times in a short debating period no matter what is being talked about.
This is called staying on message. It turns intelligent competitors into dumb terminals. It is a preposterous way to discuss important issues, but the sad truth is that generally it works.
Every once in a while a politician will rebel and say I won’t play this stupid game and they get annihilated at the polls. Robert Stanfield and Stephane Dion come to mind.
Interesting to me is the fact that if everybody had amnesia about Dalton's promises you might judge his mandate quite positively. He’s made progress on alternate energy, he’s invested billions in education, he balanced the budget, he took a gutsy decision to declare a green belt around Toronto, he has put a lot of money back into health care and although our job creation has stalled, it is impossible to ignore the impact of the rising Canadian dollar on manufacturing over which he had no control whatsoever. I would certainly give him a B to a B+ and compared to the disastrous mandate of the NDP in the early 1990s and ruinous performance of Mike Harris’s second Tory mandate, it should be no contest. But it is a contest.
My guess is that Howard Hampton is going to decide who the next premier is going to be. There will be a minority government one way or the other, unless something surprising happens in the next 20 days and Howie will cut a deal to support one or the other. It will likely be John Tory because that is a safer bet and he’ll get Tory to drop the religious school question and Tory with a private sigh of relief can say “he made me do it”
What about Northern Ontario?
Well, John Tory hasn’t really thought about Northern Ontario.
Howard Hampton of course is from Northern Ontario and will keep it high on his agenda, but there is not much fresh thinking in his solutions.
The party with the most promise are the Liberals. Their recent initiatives under David Caplan, the Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal for the first time recognizes the province must think differently about economic development. It realizes the power of the regions and that real planning tools and focus must be brought down to this level.
For a change, the province has three excellent potential leaders. I like all three. The NDP will not get to run a government in this jurisdiction for a very long time, but they may have influence. With the exception of the private religious schools question (I do not support it) there is not that much difference between the Tories and the Liberals.
Either leader will do a good job. They are going to have to. Ontario is headed for extraordinarily difficult times and it is going to take extraordinary leadership to get us through it with our economy intact.
Laurentian Media Group