Analysis

What's at stake in final Ontario leaders' debate?

The PCs' huge lead has collapsed, the NDP has surged in popularity, and the Liberals face a potentially humiliating loss. Sunday evening's debate — the last before the vote on June 7 — could help decide who will be the next premier of Ontario.

In the 3 weeks since the first televised debate, the campaign has changed dramatically

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and PC Leader Doug Ford will debate Sunday night for the last time before election day June 7. (Chris Young/Canadian Press, Michael Charles Cole/CBC and Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

In the first televised debate between Ontario's major political leaders almost three weeks ago, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath literally set herself apart from her opponents, standing to the side of them, trying to convince voters that they had a choice other than the governing Liberals or front-running Progressive Conservatives.

Apparently her approach has worked.

Since that debate, the PCs' huge lead has collapsed, the NDP has experienced an unprecedented surge in popularity, and the Liberals — who had once contemplated a future as the Official Opposition after 15 years in office — now face a potentially humiliating loss on voting day.

With the political tables turned so dramaticallySunday evening's debate — the last before the polls open on June 7 — has the potential to be an exciting 90 minutes that could help decide who will be the next premier of Ontario.

"I don't think I've seen this much momentum behind a candidate in a major election campaign, well, ever," said EKOS Research president Frank Graves, of the NDP's leap forward in opinion polls.

With an NDP victory well within the realm of possibility, Horwath's performance at Sunday night's debate could be markedly different from her previous outing.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath will likely be a target in the debate. (Marta Iwanek/Canadian Press)

Horwath: Confident or defensive?

Horwath's lead in the polls, however slight, could give her confidence, said Graves. "Maybe she's thinking, 'I'm on fire!'"

But it won't be easy going. In the earlier debate, Horwath was seen as a benign third-placer. Now, she will be the target of both Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.

Wynne will undoubtedly bring up the NDP's platform calculation error that led to the party's proposed deficit being understated by $1.4 billion.

The PCs have spent the past week exposing — and criticizing — questionable comments of a number of NDP candidates. One of the most recent controversies was an NDP candidate in Toronto who had posted a meme of Hitler on her Facebook page. (The candidate says she has no idea how the meme got there.)

Expect Ford to go after Horwath over the selection of these candidates, slamming the NDP leader for not dismissing them or denouncing some of their past statements more forcefully.

Both strategies will aim to show that Horwath and the NDP aren't ready, or shouldn't be trusted, to take the helm of the province. Horwath could be spending a fair amount of time on the defensive. She needs to remind people of why they were drawn to her, but also convince them that she will be able to handle the role of premier.
PC Leader Doug Ford will have to turn around cratering support. (Tara Walton/Canadian Press)

Ford: Needs to look 'premier ready'

Although Ford will likely bring up the Hitler-meme NDP candidate, he'll be skating on pretty thin ice when it comes to criticizing other parties' candidates. One of his candidates in Brampton was forced to resign over his alleged links to stolen data from the company that oversees Highway 407, and there are further accusations that a number of PC candidates may have used that data to help win their nominations. Elections Ontario is investigating.

Just days ago, the Liberals released an audio tape that features Ford allegedly offering to buy people's party memberships to secure the PC nomination of his preferred candidate in his home riding of Etobicoke Centre.

And while Ford has vowed to release a fully costed PC platform, there is no sign of it with less than two weeks until voting day. The cost of his promises have outweighed his unspecified plans to find "efficiencies" — which the other two leaders will characterize as cuts to core services.

"Doug Ford needs to somehow figure out a strategy for stopping the cratering of his support," said Ihor Korbabicz of Abacus Data.

Graves is even more blunt: "He needs to look premier ready." 

That won't be easy, with the allegations against him and his party that Wynne and Horwath are likely to come back to again and again. 

In the first debate, Ford merely needed to reassure. This time around, he has to win back the support he's lost.
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne is trailing well behind in the polls. She has nothing to lose in Sunday's debate. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Wynne: A chance to reconnect?

After winning a surprise majority in the last election, Wynne is trailing far behind in the polls. She's got nothing to lose in this debate, which may be to her advantage. She's by far the best speaker of the three leaders, which will come in handy when the debate gets heated.

"It might be fun being Kathleen Wynne in this debate, even if it hasn't been fun being Kathleen Wynne in this campaign," said Korbabicz.

After being criticized in the first debate for delving too deeply into policy on occasion, Wynne will likely divide her time between trying to show why her opponents are not fit to govern and reintroducing her plan to help the people of Ontario.

But according to a member of her team, don't expect any potshots from the Liberal leader. She's planning to take the high road — even if Ford mentions her smile again — to reconnect with anxious voters.

But with previous surveys showing that more than three-quarters of voters want a change, it's unclear whether this debate offers a real chance to convince jaded Ontarians to reconsider the Liberals.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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