Debates can decide an election

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Sun Media, Monday, September 26, 2011

Leaders’ televised debates are about two things: First, a level playing field and then an opportunity for a defining moment.

For Tim Hudak, it’s an opportunity to be on the same platform as a sitting premier, and to get voters thinking of him as Dalton McGuinty’s successor. For Andrea Horwath, it’s an opportunity for the NDP leader to hold her own with the leaders of the two main parties. For McGuinty, it’s an opportunity to duck.

As a two-term incumbent carrying loads of baggage, it will be a good night for him if he doesn’t take a hit.

Knockouts are the exception rather than the rule. In the history of televised federal debates, there have only been three knockout punches.

First, Brian Mulroney took John Turner out in 1984 in a memorable exchange over patronage appointments: “You had an option, sir, you could have done better.” What was a close campaign until then broke open and became a Conservative landslide.

Then Turner took down Mulroney over the free trade agreement in 1988: “I believe you have sold us out.” What had been a walk in the park for Mulroney became the most momentous campaign of modern times — a referendum on free trade.

And finally last April, Jack Layton delivered a knockout punch on Michael Ignatieff’s poor attendance record in the House: “If you want to be prime minister you’d better learn how to be a Member of Parliament first,” Layton told Iggy.

“You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion. You missed 70% of the votes.” Iggy was never in the debate, or the campaign, after that. Though Jack’s defining moment looked spontaneous, it had been carefully planned by his debate prep team led by Brian Topp, now the leading candidate to succeed him.

For Hudak, the debate could present several such opportunities.

Hudak can and should remind McGuinty that on his watch Ontario became a have-not province, when Ontarians don’t see themselves that way. Imagine, the premier of Ontario going to Ottawa with a tin cup.

Hudak can and should remind McGuinty that Ontario has run up $52 billion in new debt in the last three years. It hasn’t been a great time for the economy, but neither has Ontario been under good management.

The management of the fiscal framework is a core competence issue. And the only thing preventing a downgrade of Ontario’s credit rating is the gold-plated triple-A rating of Canada itself.

And, there’s the record, on everything from eHealth to the boondoggles over solar energy.

Finally, there’s the sleeper issue of the campaign—hydro rates. Liberal and Conservative candidates alike got an earful about this at the door during the federal campaign, when hydro wasn’t even a ballot question. Now it is, and Hudak should be playing it hard.

Finally, after two terms, it would normally be time for a change. Polls show 60% of Ontarians want change, which is normally a tipping point. But McGuinty’s leadership numbers are better than Hudak’s, because the Conservative leader hasn’t connected with voters yet.

The Conservative campaign needs to take the wraps off and let Tim be Tim. And he needs to tell voters who he is, where he comes from and why he should be premier. Tuesday is his best chance.

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