Apr 18, 2018

Ontario NDP shows its cards early in an effort to change the game

Authored by:

Shay Purdy

Shay Purdy

Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP took the unusual step on Monday (April 16th) of announcing their platform for the upcoming election.

It was indeed a rather typical looking platform launch event. Tried, tested and true: a technical briefing for media in the morning, followed by leader-in-the-round style rally against a backdrop of smiling candidates and party loyalists, podium art with the top-line message (Change for the Better), a nice glossy hard copy of the platform itself to wave at the cameras, and a subsequent media tour by the leader.

So what, then, was unusual about it? Although you could forgive the good folks of Ontario for being confused, we’re not actually in an election yet.

In fact, the writ-drop (election call) is not expected until on or around May 9th, and the election date: June 7th.

A platform drop is a key campaign moment for a variety of reasons. It can be used to reignite a campaign and establish momentum. It can capture a news cycle and refocus the campaign narrative. It energizes candidates and volunteers, and gives them some good fodder for door-knocking. Most importantly, it puts the spotlight on your leader, your campaign and your proposition to voters when they’re paying attention - during the campaign period.

So, given how important a place on a campaign script the platform-drop holds, why did Andrea Horwath choose to pull the trigger pre-campaign?

Here are a couple good reasons:

Getting in the game

Horwath, up until this point, has largely been written out of the race to be Premier of Ontario. Being the first leader and party out of the gate with a fully costed platform could help change that. First and foremost it signals to Ontarians that the NDP is not only in the game, but they intend to win.

Change for the Better clearly assumes that Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals are out of the race. That in-mind, Horwath is making a bold move to own the left with a staunchly progressive platform: investing heavily in childcare, healthcare, education and public transit, while raising taxes on the very wealthy and on large corporations by restoring the corporate tax rate on profits to 13%. These ideas should be attractive to the NDP’s pool of accessible voters, including disaffected Liberals, which Abacus Data pegs at 58% of the electorate (just one point shy of the PCs). The difficulty will be connecting with them and converting them.

Therein lies the challenge for the Ontario NDP. Horwath’s share of coverage has so far been pretty dismal. The platform drop should help, and did help. A bit. A quick analysis done by our partners at spark*advocacy shows an important uptick in interest in Andrea Horwath across traditional and social media. Google Trends shows that, on Monday, interest in Andrea Horwath went from the lowest of the three leaders to the highest of the three leaders. But only for a very brief moment. When all was said and done, even on the ONDP’s platform day, Doug Ford garnered more news coverage and more social media and search interest.

The best way for Horwath to deal with this attention deficit is by ignoring Kathleen Wynne and going head-to-head with Doug Ford. The platform sets this up well, but it will be their ability to execute an effective communications strategy that determines success or failure, not the 100-page document.

Tim Gouw 73926 Unsplash
Horwath, up until this point, has largely been written out of the race to be Premier of Ontario.

Showing their cards

If it’s true that Kathleen Wynne is unelectable, then all that’s left is for voters to choose what kind of change they want. By presenting Ontarians with a comprehensive vision and plan for the province, Horwath is hoping that they’ll see her and the Ontario NDP as an alternative and a prospective premier worth their vote.

While it might be dense reading, if nothing else, a fully costed and comprehensive platform offers voters transparency. It also presents a stark contrast against the other agent of change, who apparently intends to not bother with a costed platform at all, let alone early in the campaign. Lacking a detailed plan, Ontarians are going to have to take what Doug Ford says as policy, and surely someone will be doing the work over the course of the campaign as to how his sloganeering adds-up, or doesn’t.

Andrea Horwath and the NDP are betting that, when it comes down to it, Ontario voters are going to choose change that they are comfortable with. So, by showing their cards, and inviting scrutiny of their plan for the province, they are trying to give accessible voters peace of mind.

It’s also a plan that reflects the leader’s strengths. Horwath is noticeably comfortable talking about the platform. You can tell that she believes in it and has confidence in it. Sincerity translates well in politics. While Doug Ford is drawing a lot of attention, his bombastic style is inevitably going to cause some unease among voters who know they are choosing the next Premier of Ontario.

Ines Ferreira 349800 Unsplash
If it’s true that Kathleen Wynne is unelectable, then all that’s left is for voters to choose what kind of change they want.

Change for the Better is a difficult slogan to get excited about. In fact, it even fell rather flat with the enthusiastic partisan crowd at the platform launch event. But maybe that’s not what Andrea Horwath is going for.

What’s missing?

In terms of its appeal to electorate, what's missing from the platform might be just as important as what's in there.

The perception that the Ontario Liberals have been corrupt and unaccountable is one of the more powerful factors in the upcoming election. A lot of voters are angry with Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals, and Doug Ford is successfully tapping into that.

While it is not in the NDP playbook to stoke anger to mobilize voters, the root cause of the anger is something that could have been addressed better in the platform.

All voters want transparency and accountability in government. And some of the voters drifting to Doug Ford want it very, very badly. Respect for taxpayer dollars isn’t a complicated political pitch to make. But it’s an important one.

The NDP typically avoids talking about any spending “cuts” because, to progressives, this means cuts to public services. The NDP likely feels a bit gun shy after a 2014 campaign that saw them widely criticized for presenting a modest fiscal plan, and a 2015 federal election platform that was painted as not progressive enough. But there is a way to talk about waste and deficit reduction that isn’t “regressive”. And a little acknowledgement of Liberal’s reckless use of public funds, and a clear plan to do things differently, would probably go a long way with this particular Ontario electorate.

There is still time for Andrea Horwath to find and carry a strong message on government spending accountability. But for now, it’s a gap in the platform, and territory that they’ve dangerously ceded to Doug Ford and the Ontario PCs.

The wrap

Change for the Better is a difficult slogan to get excited about. In fact, it even fell rather flat with the enthusiastic partisan crowd at the platform launch event. But maybe that’s not what Andrea Horwath is going for.

There will, no doubt, be plenty of excitement and drama on the campaign trail. But when the dust settles, the likely ballot question on June 7th is going to be: What kind of change do you want? Or, perhaps, who do you want as your Premier?

The ONDP is betting big - 100 pages worth - on voters’ appetite for Change for the Better, and hoping that showing their cards early might change the game. Their ambitious, progressive, comprehensive and early platform does position Andrea Horwath well as the right kind of change for the province (with a pool of accessible voters plenty large enough to make her Premier of Ontario, if the winds of change blow her way).

Now she has to sell it.

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