February 16, 2018 – In the shadow of a news cycle dominated by former leader Patrick Brown, Ontario PC leadership contenders Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, Caroline Mulroney, and late addition Tanya Granic Allen, met up at the studios of TVO’s The Agenda for a debate hosted by Steve Paikin. It was the first of two debates (or maybe more if Christine Elliott gets her way after calling for northern and southwestern debates).
So how did they stack up? Mostly, very politely. Instead of duking it out in their first public debate, the candidates doled out more of a gentle nudging. The exception was firebrand Tanya Granic Allen, who was looking for a fight on sex ed and didn’t get one.
Doug Ford was unusually laid-back, and relied too often on talking points rather than answering questions. Caroline Mulroney was pleasant if placid, and Christine Elliott seemed the most knowledgeable, but pulled too many punches – in her scrum, she delivered one line that should have been her rallying cry in the debate: “I’m Kathleen Wynne’s worst nightmare.” Granic Allen, the least known candidate and leader of an anti-sex ed group, injected some much-needed energy into the debate, but her undiluted social conservative positions may present some clear limitations when it comes to a general election.
It was an unusual debate in many ways, not least in that the focus of their opposition was the party’s election platform – Patrick Brown’s “People’s Guarantee,” released barely three months ago – as much as the Liberal government’s record.
Here’s where they stood:
The pitch: Elliott pitched herself as the compassionate candidate – she feels your pain, and is the only one with the experience to do something about it.
People’s Guarantee: Elliott would conduct a value for money audit, and axe the carbon tax. She would also challenge Prime Minister Trudeau on dictating a price on carbon. Elliott said that cutting taxes is necessary to help average Ontarians put food on the table and deal with hydro prices. While she agreed that this tax-slashing would result in a deficit, she said she would have a plan to get the province out of the red, though no details were on offer yet.
Patrick Brown: Elliott would give Patrick Brown a chance to clear his name, though it is hard to know exactly how or if that can happen.
Her bottom line: Elliott has learned from her previous leadership campaigns, she is strengthening her grassroots game with significant caucus support, and importantly, she can make a credible pitch that she is the best placed to win a general election.
The pitch: Doug Ford was in true Ford form – he will toss the political elites, save taxpayers money and attract voters from across all parties – but you will just have to trust him to deal with all the pesky details.
People’s Guarantee: Ford always was, and always will be, against a carbon tax. He’s convinced that he can find “2 or 3 per cent” savings in provincial spending to pay for the budget hole created by axing the tax. More importantly, he claims that only about 10 per cent of the PC party fed into the platform, and that it was created by – who else – the party elites.
Patrick Brown: Ford made little reference to Patrick Brown, focusing instead on his core mantra of respect for taxpayers.
His bottom line: Political elites are done in this party, and the era of the taxpayer will reign supreme under a Ford regime.
The pitch: Caroline Mulroney is new, and only new will do to fight a long-standing Liberal government.
People’s Guarantee: Mulroney supports conservation and technology as ways to approach the environment, but like her colleagues she would not allow a carbon tax. Unlike her opponents, she would not re-open the sex ed curriculum.
Patrick Brown: Like Christine Elliott, she would allow Patrick Brown the opportunity to clear his name.
Her bottom line: No experience is good experience, says Mulroney – after all, Kathleen Wynne has an awful lot of experience.
Tanya Granic Allen
The pitch: Granic Allen pitched herself as a principled social conservative who listens to the grassroots.
The People’s Guarantee: Granic Allen says the platform died the day Patrick Brown resigned. She is against the carbon tax and always was – and she didn’t have to survey the grassroots to figure it out (a dig at Mulroney and Elliott). She would take Prime Minister Trudeau to court if he tries to impose a carbon tax and wants Ontario PCs to support their federal cousins in opposing it.
Patrick Brown: Granic Allen is anti-Brown all the way – but not for the obvious reasons. She said that Patrick Brown and his executive are corrupt, and that they ran the party into the ground, likely a reference to grassroots nominees who were allegedly suppressed in several ridings and inflated membership numbers.
Her bottom line: Granic Allen turned in an energized performance, focused mainly on the sex ed curriculum and cutting taxes, and could eat into Doug Ford’s base.
This was a polite event, with candidates testing the waters. But they will need to starting landing some shots on their opponents to create real differentiation for PC voters – and the general public, who will get their say shortly after the leadership race concludes. Expect a less tentative outing at the next debate.
In the coming days, media and critics will go hard after missing details, like the size of the revenue gap created by eliminating the Liberal’s cap and trade program and the candidates’ refusal to replace it with the PC’s previous offering, the now dead carbon tax. They will also jump on each other’s slip-ups, like Ford’s inability to respond to moderator Paikin’s question about naming a wasteful government program he would eliminate (a little too reminiscent of former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s debate brain freeze).
Stay tuned for round two.
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