The Air War Begins

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.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in 2013 OLP Leadership Race, Ontario Politics

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at and online at the National Post.

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9 Responses to The Air War Begins

  1. Jordan

    Kennedy, Pupatello and Wynne are definitely the best speakers. I don’t think any of them used notes, if they did they used them very effectively. I found Sousa could be distracting because he was looking down so much when he spoke. I also wasn’t a big fan of Murray, I think his ideas may be a bit to different then the others and there was just something unlikeable about him.

  2. dstm

    Once again…you have offered an objective (best) analysis of / observations on the “debate”. I was there. I was also confronted and somewhat intimidated by several of the union protesters outside the centre. Ironically many were making evaluative comments about democracy. Given many were teachers and the purpose of the debate I am forced to assume; (a)they cannot define the word (b)they were only doing what their union tells them.
    So sad. I wonder what they are telling their students

    • Marc from soccer

      If they’re probably teaching them about how overriding the constitutional rights of your biggest supporters in order to lose by-elections is not only likely illegal, but also terrible politics, then the whole Liberal brain-trust would do well to be in their classes!

  3. Sean C.

    Regarding Wynne’s pledge, I can offer some precedent for that paying dividents. In 1972, the PEI Liberals’ polling told them that they were facing a serious loss of support in rural PEI. In response, Premier Alex Campbell named himself Minister of Agriculture (the previous one, Daniel J. MacDonald, having been elected to the House of Commons that year), and held it through to the 1974 election, which they won decisively.

    • Sean C.

      Dividends, that should be.

    • CalgaryGrit

      The reality of the situation is that an issue is more likely to get overlooked if the Premier is the minister because her attention will be elsewhere. In the end, I’m sure Wynne would name a Parliamentary Secretary who would end up doing most of the work.

      But that’s an interesting bit of trivia. And I do think this is the type of move that could pay off politically. Politics is all about symbolism, after all.

      • Marc from soccer

        Absolutely – particularly in governments where the center runs the show. I think rural Ontario is going to need more than symbolism to return to the Liberal fold but give her credit for trying.

  4. MKS from durham

    I missed the debate you are talking about and would like to see it, if anyone can direct me to where to get it on line, I’d appreciate it!
    I did see the TVO Agenda debate. I keep hearing how fiery Pupatello comes across in debate. To me she made about two points early on that all her opponents politely, but effectively rejected and disproved. Then she really became invisible for the rest of the debate.
    I thought both Kennedy and Wynne were very strong and really looked like the front runners, although I was much more impressed with Murray (as strong on ideas) and Soussa as articulating and carrying himself like a future leader.
    To me the most effective point of the night was during the section on Education/ Bill 115, when Kenndy looked into the camera and spoke directly to Teacher Local Leaders and said directly, ‘don’t walk out’. Very effective!

    • CalgaryGrit

      Thanks for the recap of the TVO debate. I think Paiken did a better job of keeping it moving than the first OLP debate summarized above.

      I believe the party isn’t posting video from the debates, for fear of a “do you think it is easy to make priorities” moment.

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