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Election Day: Oct. 2, 2003   

Where's Howard?
Where's Howard?
by David Docherty
Sept. 23, 2003

No matter how clever or media-friendly their campaigns are, party leaders who start the race at a distant third in public support can hardly be surprised if they don't get the same attention as the frontrunners.

But there is another reason that the New Democratic Party is struggling to be a player in the campaign of 2003: the party at the other end of the political spectrum has essentially ignored it.

The Progressive Conservatives have pretty much stuck to the script in this campaign, hammering away at Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty's credibility. For Ernie Eves, the New Democrats might well have not existed. But four years ago, then-Tory leader Mike Harris did not ignore the third party -- indeed, he went out of his way to say nice things about them. In focusing all their attention on McGuinty, the Tories have forgotten how the "be nice to the NDP" strategy might help them.

For example, during last leadership debate, a common refrain from Harris went something like this: "While I don't agree with the New Democrats' stance on [insert policy here], at least they have a consistent plan." Was Harris trying to get into Howard Hampton's good books? Hardly. In playing up the NDP, Harris suggested that voters had a clear choice: a continuation of the Common Sense Revolution and more tax cuts, or a return to higher taxes and bigger government. The implicit message was, "If you don't like the Tories, the New Democrats are a good way to voice your opposition." The Conservatives knew that voters would not abandon them for the left-leaning New Democrats, but they hoped that some soft Liberal support might go to the NDP.

They were right, too. A more visible NDP made for a three-party campaign in 1999, and that split helped the Tories win a second majority. Although the Liberals gained seats and votes, they simply couldn't get enough traction to overtake the Tories.

Outside of a handful of ridings, however, this campaign has not shaped up as a three-party -- or even two-and-a-half party -- race. It hasn't been for lack of effort on the NDP's part. Consider some of their more memorable campaign stunts:

Hampton holding up a piece of Swiss cheese to suggest the other parties' platforms were full of holes;
Buying airline tickets to British Columbia for Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty, so the other two leaders could see how a state-run auto insurance company can save money for consumers;
The "dunk tank" photo opportunity, where a stand-in for the insurance industry was "soaked" by Hampton for "soaking" drivers;
A press conference near the home of Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk, criticizing a property tax break for seniors that Hampton said would be extended to some of Ontario's richest residents.

But, as inventive as some of these stunts were, they didn't prove effective in bolstering NDP support. The auto insurance issue, for instance, has not captured public attention the way it did in New Brunswick, and the event outside Munk's home has such a personal tone that it overshadowed the party's message on education funding.

Even on issues where the NDP is solid, it has had trouble capturing media and public attention. The August blackout should have alerted Ontario voters that, no matter the cause, we have an energy problem. There is little doubt that, in terms of energy policy, Hampton is the best versed of the three leaders, yet his plan to stop deregulation and privatization in the sector has not generated much support. That can be blamed partially on the complexity of the electricity issue -- unpacking each of the parties' stances on power generation, transmission and sales can be difficult. But the NDP is having difficulty convincing voters that it could produce more power while converting coal-fired generating stations and stopping nuclear expansion.

Perhaps the biggest failure in the New Democratic campaign has been its inability to paint the Liberals as "Tory light." The party's "public power" platform stresses that this campaign is all about choosing between public and private delivery of essential services, and claims that only the New Democrats will protect the public interest. But the Liberals have done a better job of distinguishing themselves from the Conservatives this time around. McGuinty's oft-quoted line that he won't raise taxes but he won't cut them either has struck a chord with many Ontarians. This middle road is appealing to voters who think that further tax reductions will decimate essential services, but who don't want a smaller paycheque at the end of the week. More than 60 per cent of voters think it is time for a change of government, and the majority of these folks are backing the Liberals.

For Hampton, this election is no longer about winning, but rather survival. His task in the final week of the campaign is to convince voters that Ontario needs two opposition parties. The NDP does not want to fall victim to the public's desire to defeat the Tories. He must persuade some soft Liberal support that strategic voting should give way to the need for a strong opposition.

On the eve of the leaders' debate, however, it did not appear that Hampton would be getting any help from the Tories to spread that message this time.



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