Election campaigns are one part ideas and one part trust. How these two things interact in voters’ minds determines the outcome. In the Ontario election, they have just taken an extraordinary turn.
Consider the Progressive Conservatives’ campaign. To his credit, Tim Hudak largely set the campaign agenda. From the start, he made it about jobs and his plan to create a million of them.
Most voters know enough about policy to agree that tax cuts to business should create jobs. They also know that deficits are generally a bad thing. As Ontario’s is too high, lower government spending probably sounds like a good idea—so far, so good.
However, the ground gets a lot softer when Hudak declares that now is the time for some very tough medicine: slashing a hundred thousand public sector jobs, while making major corporate tax cuts. This, he says, is necessary to get his million jobs.
Now you don’t have to be an economist to realize that the immediate effect of such big cuts will be to shrink the economy. But most of us don’t know what will happen after that and we’re likely to turn to the experts for guidance.
As it turns out, plenty of smart people disagree with Hudak. They say this is the wrong time for such cuts, and that it could even throw the economy into recession. How does an ordinary voter decide who is right?
This is where the trust factor comes in. Many people will shift their attention away from the ideas and onto the person. They will draw on their experience of people and situations to try to decide whether they trust Hudak more than his critics. And this is where things have suddenly got very interesting.
On trust, Hudak has had a very bad week. It is now clear that his million jobs claim is based on bad math. As Adam Radwanski notes, this is not just a dispute over projections, but a whopping error in how jobs are counted. As a result, no one outside the PC fold will defend the plan.
It gets worse. Rather than admit the error, Hudak chose to go on the record defending these numbers.
As a result, we are left with two disturbing conclusions. First, either his campaign is based on a sophomoric mistake or he was trying to mislead Ontarians. And, second, having been caught, his response was to lie to our face to try to cover it up.
This is a huge blow to his credibility—and a disaster for him on the trust side of the voting equation. It also redefines the landscape around the campaign. Let’s start with the NDP.
In many respects, the NDP’s campaign is a mirror image of the PC’s. Andrea Horwath has shied away from big or controversial ideas, apparently hoping to score points for moderation, rather than boldness or innovation.
Indeed, the platform fails even to mention traditional NDP issues, such as poverty, climate change, and women’s issues. Instead, the campaign seems almost entirely focused on the trust side of the ideas/trust equation.
Horwath apparently thinks Kathleen Wynne’s credibility has been so damaged by the gas plant scandal that Hudak will hammer her in any policy fight—and the NDP will be waiting to pick up the collapsing Liberal vote.
If there is a big message to the campaign, it is that Horwath is a reasonable—that is, middle-of-the-road—person who can be trusted to lead.
As for the Liberals, they’ve responded to the accusations of scandal by taking the bull by the horns. Rather than play it safe, Wynne has chosen to reinvent the party by putting at least two big and controversial ideas on the table: a willingness to make big public investments, especially in transit; and an Ontario pension plan.
Her message is that Hudak is wrong; this is not the time to cut public spending and, if elected, she’ll bring the budget under control without drastic cuts.
By placing herself in direct opposition to Hudak’s million jobs plan, she is thus posing a direct challenge to voters to decide who they really trust.
It’s a risky strategy and, until now, Hudak has responded by attacking Wynne’s credibility. Thus his reply to the pension question was to ask Ontarians if they would trust their future to someone who was part of the gas plants scandal. What these people really want, he said, is jobs.
Like Horwath, Hudak has been gambling that Wynne’s credibility is so damaged that people will side with his call to shrink government and cut taxes over anything Wynne can say. They just won’t trust her.
In fact, Wynne has surprised everyone by holding her own. But after the last few days, it looks like we’re now into a whole new game.
Hudak’s credibility has been so badly damaged that he will have to abandon his million jobs mantra—that or be branded a fool. Nor is he in any position to attack Wynne’s credibility.
In short, he has cleared the way for her to make her arguments, effectively unopposed, and that could be a game-changer.
In addition, on the pension issue Wynne believes people are not saving enough for retirement and that a crisis is brewing. Something has to be done and government is the only one willing and able to step up to the plate.
Whatever one thinks about government pensions, there is a big and real human need here and lots of people want someone to deal with it. They want someone to trust. That opportunity now belongs to Wynne.
As for Horwath, by failing to put any big ideas of her own on the table, she has effectively dealt herself out of the policy game—and it is too late to get back in.
So what’s the lesson? Policy is a story and the leader is the story-teller. To believe the story, we must believe in the story-teller. And here, the smart money is now on Wynne.
(In the interests of disclosure, the author recently served as Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team.)
Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on democracy, public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Since 2009, he has been Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. From October 2013 to April 2014, Don served as Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan