By PATRICK HUNTER
Ontario New Democratic Party leader, Andrea Horwath, finally surfaced after the election to meet the media. Before Horwath’s appearance, I was all prepared to support her staying on as leader of the party. I almost changed my mind. I still think that she should stay, but let me tell you why I almost changed.
It would have been great if Horwath had stepped up to the microphone and said: “Okay, I screwed up”, or words to that effect, because she did. The party did. The decision to force an election was certainly not Howarth’s alone. The caucus, her advisors and, to some extent, the Provincial Council – the body that governs between conventions – screwed up. But, as leader, she has to take the brunt of the blame.
That honesty, if she had confessed, would have gone a long way in saying to people “we have an honest politician in our midst”. Horwath however decided to go the “strategic voting” direction to explain the outcome of the election, deflecting her role.
Although the party maintained its size, in many ways it is difficult to avoid the fact that this was indeed a defeat.
On previous occasions when the NDP supported the Liberal government’s budget, there was a sense of growing support for Horwath. My reading of the entrails, as it were, was that she was demonstrating a high degree of responsibility by negotiating budget amendments that made sense and cast her in a good light with the electorate. Sure, it could, and probably did have an element of danger in that party faithfuls and those looking for a solid alternative would see this as cozying up too much to the Liberals. It is one of those chances one had to take. Although elections are necessary, they are expensive.
As I interpret it, the advisors essentially said, “we can’t afford to prop up the Liberals anymore. We are in danger of losing our identity if we continue to support their budget”. So, notwithstanding the apparent overwhelming belief that the budget was a gift to the NDP, the party decided to pull the plug.
To make matters worse, even though they were apparently resolute in opting for an election, the election machinery was evidently not in place. One of the first signs was that Horwath not only cancelled media availability following the budget – an almost mandatory task for the political spin machine – she waited about a full day to come forward to respond. One assumes she had to consult extensively the party’s apparatus to decide whether or not to ignore the “no-more-support” direction.
The message with which she emerged was flimsy at best. The “we cannot trust the Liberals to hold to their promises” was really a weak tag-line on which to run an election campaign.
Also telling was that the party, although they saw the election coming because they held the reins, were caught unprepared. The deer caught in the headlight metaphor comes to mind. The busses were not ready and, most painful of all, neither was the platform. It was also apparent that commercials were not shot and media buys not made.
So, with all that failure, why should she stay on?
It was not a brutal failure. It was not necessarily a Horwath failure in itself. It was in part a failure to read the signals well and in being prepared. Horwath was no doubt handcuffed by a party resolution, but also by the election-preparedness team (if one existed). If anything, what this all demonstrated was that Horwath failed to exercise the power she had as leader. Call it confidence or whatever, she may have felt that she had no choice. The union representatives who have very strong influence on the party may have given her the indication that they would pull their support – or some version of that consideration – if she continued to prop up the Liberal government.
While I have no inside knowledge of this, I do know that Ontario Federation of Labour president, Sid Ryan, can be a very influential figure within the party. As head of CUPE, he was one of the strongest critics of the Bob Rae social contract solution. He was also one of Horwath’s critics about the path of the campaign.
So, my thinking is that Horwath hopefully has learned an important lesson from this campaign – things she would do differently in the next. She should have learned, first of all, that Kathleen Wynne is a formidable opponent. To have shaken off the fallout of her predecessor’s scandal to win a majority is not something to sneeze at.
The party has four years to re-focus. High on the list should be replacing some of its out-of-touch advisors. Horwath should take the opportunity to be more assertive. It is very difficult to sell a message if you don’t believe in it, and that came through in the campaign. Her defence following the “leak” of criticisms from some of the party’s supporters was wobbly.
Horwath faces a mandatory review of her leadership this fall. The fact that she has not resigned after being away from the spotlight since election night suggest to me that she has resolved to stay on. Good for her.
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