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First leaders’ debate: sparks, but no big winner

Maybe Doug Ford, but only because he didn’t screw up.

Let’s face it: most Ontarians haven’t paid much attention to the campaign so far. Northern Ontario, where the debate was held, has only a handful of provincial ridings. This is not where the election will be played.

But there was a risk for Mr. Ford during this tete-a-tete, which the other chiefs tried to exploit.

Mr. Ford does not handle the art of rhetoric. He gets angry reading his prepared notes. And when he improvises, his strategists hold their breath because the leader is a free electron.

During the last campaign, Mr. Ford had fired red balls at his opponents in the debates, and not always in an elegant way. His incisive comments on the pretty smile by Kathleen Wynne raised eyebrows.

Four years later, Mr. Ford has a record to uphold and a new image to uphold. He is the favorite in the polls and his campaign is adapted accordingly: his press briefings are short and few. No wonder he left after the debate, as his opponents answered questions from the media.

During the exchanges, the Progressive Conservative leader remained calm most of the time. When the other bosses attacked each other, he completely faded away (and sometimes even closed his eyes!). He stuck to his slogans and key messages about his budget.

Simple sentences like: We don’t need more taxes, we need more people paying taxes. The other leaders scratched him all the same, but could have better taken advantage of the fact that he did not seem to master all his files in depth. He was reading some of her responses word for word.

Del Duca wins

The tone rose between Mr. Ford and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca a few times. Mr. Del Duca, for example, accused Doug Ford, with supporting figures, of misleading Ontarians by saying that he had created more jobs in the manufacturing sector. Mr Ford countered by pointing to the previous Liberal government’s lack of pandemic preparedness.

The head of NDP, Andrea Horwath, struggled to win between the two. Moreover, Steven Del Duca gave him little attention, preferring to shoot only Doug Ford, obviously to try to establish himself as his only and true opponent.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca during the leaders’ debate in North Bay.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Gino Donato

Ms. Horwath was empathetic and often spoke directly to northerners. the NDP held the majority of seats in the North and some are in the crosshairs of other parties.

Mr Del Duca has tried somehow to divest himself of Mrs Wynne’s legacy, portraying his party as a new liberal party. Doug Ford accused him of only being concerned with the urban vote.

Recently, Steven Del Duca got rid of his big dark glasses to try to soften his image. During the debate, his energy levels fluctuated. His smile was affable, his arguments all well put together. Difficult to say what will think the voters who discover it for the first time.

The star of the game

The star of the game, if there is one, goes to the head of greens, Mike Schreiner. Like Steven Del Duca, it was his first debate: he became the first Green MP in Ontario history, in 2018. He was the only one who spoke about the environment, in sharp and simple terms to to understand. A missed opportunity for the other chefs, by the way.

Mr. Schreiner is probably the best speaker of the lot. His mastery of other complex issues, such as the economy, health care, and especially housing, could help combat the perception that the Green Party is a single-issue party. He did not hesitate to ask pointed questions of Mr. Ford, a tactic that his other opponents did not employ.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner answers a question during the leaders' debate in North Bay.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Gino Donato

The French fact

It is not surprising that Francophone issues were completely forgotten in this debate, even though many Franco-Ontarians live in the North. We are still talking about four unilingual Anglophone chefs, a first for decades in Ontario.

Mrs. Horwath is the only one to have spoken a word of French: a thin thank you, at the end of his speech. the NDP holds seats where many Franco-Ontarians live.

If MM. Ford and Schreiner never paid a great deal of attention to French speakers, forgetfulness is revealing in Steven Del Duca, because it is a clear contrast with his predecessors. Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty spoke French and emphasized the importance of protecting the French fact in Ontario.

The next debate is scheduled for Monday evening on TVO and will be broadcast on the major channels. The event could attract more attention if Mr. Ford’s adversaries find a way to better destabilize him.

To win, Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca must also convince enough Ontarians that a wind of change is needed in Ontario.

A tall order, if historians are to be believed.

The last Ontario premier to be shown the door after a single term was Bob Rae, in 1995. Before that: Ernest Drury, United Farmers of Ontario…in 1923.

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