The Ontario Liberal Party’s leadership race has been largely fought on the ground until now. With such a tight timeline, the campaigns were forced to focus almost exclusively on signing up new members until November 23rd. There have been polls, endorsements, and a few policies rushed out the door, but most of the race has taken place outside of the public eye. Heck, Harinder Takhar didn’t even declare until after the membership deadline.
With that deadline passed, today’s debate in Ingersoll gave the candidates their first real opportunity to make their pitch to undecided Liberals and potential delegates. Or, at the very least, an opportunity to make their pitch to the media. There were more protestors than Liberals watching the debate live, and if Twitter is any indication, most who tuned in online had already made up their minds. So today was very much about the candidates defining themselves and trying to drive the narrative until the delegate selection meetings in early January – when the media’s attention will no doubt turn to delegate counts and convention deal making.
Since so few undecided voters were watching, it’s hard to name “winners” and “losers”. In my view, Wynne, Kennedy, and Pupatello were the strongest speakers and the most comfortable on stage, but they were also the three candidates who put the fewest concrete policies out there. I’m too close to this to objectively judge what impact, if any, today’s debate will have on the leadership race but, to the best of my ability, the following appear to be the narrative each candidate was trying to advance.
Kathleen Wynne said “Liberal values” four times in her opening statement and kept a positive tone throughout the debate, which makes a lot of sense given she’s likely the frontrunner at this point. She raised a few eyebrows with her promise to name herself Agriculture Minister – I don’t personally think the Premier should be the Agriculture Minister, but it’s a symbolic gesture to rural Ontario that is sure to make its way into most debate recaps.
Gerard Kennedy set out to speak the “tough truths“, focusing on the very real challenges the party is facing and framing himself as the candidate best able to offer voters a “fresh” start. He was candid that the OLP has been sidetracked, that many voters in rural Ontario feel they’ve been overlooked, and that the OLP needs to earn back Ontarians’ respect. In this vein, he was the only candidate to reference the Drummond Report, or to acknowledge that there are very real choices facing the government.
From his opening statement, Glen Murray declared the party needed “workable ideas, not just big words and big Liberal values“. He then spent the debate tossing out ideas, facts, and figures at every opportunity. He clearly tried to stake out his ground as the “ideas candidate” and, in the eyes of some, succeeded.
Many pundits have said that Sandra Pupatello came across as too “angry”, but I think she succeeded in portraying herself as a “tough” fighter, ready to take on the NDP and PCs. In the end, delegates are likely to side with the candidate they feel has the best chance of winning the next election, and while I don’t personally think Sandra is that candidate, it’s been smart of her to consistently push the narrative that she is.
Charles Sousa & Harinder Takhar were both a bit stiff out of the gate, but warmed up as the debate went on (Sousa especially). Both focused heavily on fiscal issues, promoting their real world business experience, and tossing out a slew of ideas to boost the economy and help “job creators”.
Eric Hoskins positioned himself off as a political outsider, touting his real world experiences as a medical doctor and humanitarian. He came across as very likable, but I’m not sure he managed to stand out from the crowd as much as he would have liked.