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Everyone's Running a Campaign of "Change"

09/13/2011 06:53 EDT | Updated 11/13/2011 05:12 EST
Flickr: JenniferK

With the kick-off to Ontario's 40th general election on Oct. 6, The Huffington Post Canada kicks off its coverage with lively, ongoing debates between three of the smartest and most plugged-in politicos in the province: John Duffy arguing for the McGuinty camp; Jason Lietaer (@jasonlietaer) in Hudak's corner; and Heather Fraser (@ottawafraser) duking it out for Horwath. Check in with HuffingtonPost.ca every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

John Duffy (Liberal):

Getting the Campaign You Want. It's not a self-help book, but rather, a good way to describe the hundreds of thousands of person-hours that go into organizing and executing an election effort. The outcome is in no one's span of control; that's democracy. But what all of the campaign's actors bend their efforts towards is to land a question in voters' minds that is answered by casting a ballot in a certain way. The team whose question obtains enough people who vote in the right places is the team that wins.

So how's it going after a week? Who is landing their question? For the PCs, the core proposition is the idea that Premier McGuinty's Liberals manipulate the public policy of the province to their own purposes and those of their favoured constituencies, leaving the "rest of us" to pick up the tab. Mr. Hudak's invites voters to "change" this alleged practice by changing the government. Call this concept "restitution."

For the NDP campaign, the construction of "change" is fairly similar to the PC's at one level. The principal difference is that the NDP includes corporations in their list of those who benefit from the Liberals' supposedly selective approach to governing. However, there's another dimension to the NDP campaign. That's the attempt to embody "aspiring" -- the same desire for a better kind of politics that did so much to lift the late Jack Layton's final campaign.

The Liberals have a different construction of "change." For Mr. McGuinty's campaign, the desired question for voters to ask is "which change?" Liberals are offering a choice between their depiction of Mr. Hudak's PCs taking the province backward into a state of every-man-for-himself struggle and a united and determined province under Premier McGuinty making incremental headway in an unforgiving world. Call their concept "uniting."

So what we have is three versions of change: "restitution", "uniting" and "aspiring." The tension between the concepts "uniting" and "restitution" is profound, and helps explain why so much sound and fury has been expended to date on the proposed tax support for new workforce entrants. It's a Liberal "uniting" move that provokes in some a visceral response for "restitution." That's a fight the NDP stayed out of, not wanting to muddy their aspirational pitch in a knock-down drag-out clash.

The PCs seem now to be moving off the tax support issue in general. It appears the Liberals may have gotten slightly the better of the exchange, but the contest is only begun. We can expect more aspirational change messages from Ms. Horwath and more "forward together" pitches from Premier McGuinty. We'll see how that goes. My question is to Jason: if restitution isn't catching fire with a big enough segment of voters, where does the PC campaign go now in terms of offering change in a way that will gather the voters who aren't buying the "restitution" appeal?

Jason Lietaer (PC):

Ah, the elusive "ballot question."

I read the various propositions of the three parties a little differently than John. But it always makes me chuckle when someone associated with the Liberal party describes only themselves or only their cause as "uniting." Politics is the science of presenting your ideas in the most appealing light, but the self-congratulatory way that the Liberal Party -- and its leader, Dalton McGuinty -- describe themselves is very telling.

The affirmative action proposal that has garnered so much ink over the first week of the campaign has been described as divisive and discriminatory by nearly everyone who has studied it. Even media outlets chiding conservatives for tone and language agree that this plan is "divisive," "pits one Ontarian against another" or is "unfair."

But Dalton McGuinty is a uniter. How do we know? He says so.

I'll put forward a different proposition -- the one that I believe does unite Ontarians right now: the fact that they're having trouble making ends meet. The fact that they're concerned about their next hydro bill. The quiet concern over whether or not they can afford to send their kids to college or university. Call it restitution or whatever you like, John. I call it "worry."

No amount of bluster by the premier can mask it. Oh, sure, you can have good days and bad days -- but when the reckoning comes that is how politicians are judged. Am I better off than I was eight years ago? Has my quality of life improved? There's a reason you don't see Dalton McGuinty with the confidence to ask or answer these questions... it's because, for most Ontarians, the answer is no.

Each day Dalton McGuinty throws out some sort of baseless allegation to Tim Hudak. "You'll cancel this..." "you'll cut that..." It has the distinct feel of a man desperate to talk about anything other than his record and playing the role of vaudeville magician -- look over here... don't notice what I'm doing with my other hand. But you can't avoid it. Sooner or later, it's apparent the emperor has no clothes.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

It's got to be pretty tough going for the Liberals -- a two-term incumbent government -- to run on "change." One of the reasons for the longevity of the Chretien government or the Bill Davis government is that they ran on their record. The ballot question in almost every election has been whether voters want to stay on the current path or whether they want change.

Voters stay the same when they are comfortable, and they want change when things aren't working. If the Liberals are running on change after eight years in government, it means they feel they can't run on their record, and it means something is wrong.

Ontarians are looking for change. And that means choosing between Hudak's politics of division or Horwath's politics of optimism. John says the NDP campaign pitch is "aspirational." Indeed. That is perhaps why the NDP has momentum. Hope, the desire for change and the idea that we can do better are at the heart of what voters want for themselves, their families and their communities.

Horwath is also striking a chord because the NDP proposals are also sensible and rooted in our core social democratic values, namely tackling the challenges that are squeezing everyday families. Solutions like taking the HST off home heating and hydro and creating jobs by providing tax credits for companies the hire a new employee are good, practical ideas.

But they are grounded in the idea that real change and a better future is possible. And that's what Howarth's leadership is about. It's about putting an end to cynical politics, attack ads and smears and offering real solutions for everyday people.

John Duffy (Liberal):

It's interesting how the conversation turns back to some of the things we've talked about previously. On Friday, we discussed the possibility that Mr. Hudak's campaign may at this stage be aimed primarily at motivating the Conservative base. The messages that you are advancing, Jason, feel much in the same vein.

Heather, we talked yesterday about how hard it may be for the NDP to occupy the aspirational high ground in light of Ms. Horwath's repositioning of the party towards tax cuts and away from the environment. We'll see how that plays out as well.

As for the Liberals, the trick is to use the record to illustrate the path forward. This sets up a message of positive change, with an accent on uniting the province to do so which contrasts with Mr. Hudak's offering. We'll see how each pitch plays out.

Jason Lietaer (PC):

John, it's getting late in the day so I'm going to take it a bit easy on you. A bit.

You have unwittingly exposed the Liberal misunderstanding of the concerns of voters. Now, I'm not using this issue to predict wins and losses, but I want to point out that I wrote earlier today about the concerns of average Ontarians -- paying their bills, affordability and hydro rates.

You dismiss these concerns as playing to the "conservative base". If it's a play for our base, why are the NDP trying to talk the same way? Many Ontarians (whether they support the premier or not) watch him float from gated event to gated event telling them that the status quo is good enough. That they shouldn't really be worried.

This concern over affordability is a new campaign strategy for the NDP. Whether or not they mean it is one thing, but at least they're making an effort. In related news: when will Dalton McGuinty meet his first voter outside his bubble campaign? I look forward to his first visit outside the ropes.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

I don't think it's news that Dalton McGuinty is out of touch with the concerns of everyday, average Ontarians. That's just stating the facts. But Jason, to say that the Tim Hudak and the Tories are the somehow the new voice of the every day people is far-fetched wishful thinking.

New Democrats concern for affordablity is a not new. True, Horwath has some new and good ideas about HOW to make life more affordable, but the idea that Ontarians should be able to work for a decent wage, and afford to feed their families and access the services they need for their families is what New Democrats are all about. Hardly straying from our values as Jason suggests.

New Democrats have a long tradition of helping hardworking Ontarians protect their pocketbook and keep life affordable. Quality health care, affordable child care and public education are the great equalizers in our society -and the other piece of the puzzle when it comes to making life better.

That's where we differ from the other parties -- we've got good ideas on making life affordable through concrete, fresh proposals and a long tradition of supporting the services that help achieve that.

John Duffy, political strategist for the Ontario Liberal election campaign, is also the founder of StrategyCorp and author of author of 'Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.' Jason Lietaer, the Hudak campaign's communications director, is also the vice president of public affairs of Enterprise Canada. Heather Fraser, representing the NDP, is the director of communications for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.