What’s an Opposition Leader got to do to get attention?

Who is the Ontario NDP leader?

I get that question a fair bit when I chat politics with friends and neighbours not immersed in it everyday. Andrea Horwath has been the NDP leader through two provincial elections and is assumedly gearing up for a third.

She seems to be operating in stealth mode these days, so I’m not sure what she is doing to make the third time the charm with Ontario voters. On Monday night (May 15) her Deputy Leader, Jagmeet Singh declares his bid to lead the federal party. This won’t help Horwath get noticed.

Horwath’s real problem however, isn’t that nobody remembers who she is, but that she is running out of room on the left of the political spectrum to offer anything to voters.

Just before the last provincial election Horwath held the balance of power in a minority government. She miscalculated and rejected a very progressive budget proposed by the Liberals. Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals then outflanked her in the ensuing Ontario election as the NDP shifted right to offer voters a more fiscally restrained plan than the Liberals offered. The result was a very bitter third place with some key long time New Democrats losing their seats.

As we gear up to 2018 Wynne and company can point to free tuition for low-income families and the recently announced pharma-care for everyone under 25. In the coming days, Wynne will be announcing that Ontario workers will be guaranteed a minimum number of sick days, increasing vacation pay, and boosting minimum wage to $15 an hour. This creates a real problem for Andrea Horwath and the NDP, what ground can they stake out for themselves to offer voters in 2018?

This manoeuvring is all part of the Liberal plan, which is to isolate the NDP and go toe to toe with Patrick Brown and the PC’s on the future vision for Ontario. The Liberals are using the power of government to their full advantage to deprive the NDP and Tories of any exposure to promote their competing plans. In politics, controlling the public agenda forces your opponents to respond to you thus robbing them of any advantage they may gain in setting out new policies.

PC leader Patrick Brown is still struggling to be recognized as well, although he and the Ontario PC’s have not been hiding since Brown replaced Tim Hudak as leader. The Conservative Party has been on a mission to raise money and they’ve done a great job at it, and now sit with the most money to spend.

Last week Brown introduced his Accountability and Ethics Action Plan, essentially saying “we will be better at government than these guys.” Expect this to be the focus until they hold a policy conference in late November.

Offering up the PC plan for Ontario will end their free ride of being a place for Ontarians to park their vote until they start paying attention. The PC party’s recent history of creating policy that scares voters back to the Liberals has been kept in check so far under Brown but grassroots policy initiatives could quickly undo that.

Brown has not escaped some controversy as his stumble on sex-ed in the Scarborough-Rouge River by-election showed he still needs to get everyone on the same page. He also was dealt a setback when his favoured candidate lost the nomination in Niagara West-Glanbrook to a 19-year-old political rookie. Additionally, controversy over recent nomination battles in Ottawa and in the GTA has forced him to bring outside, independent monitors for future contests.

Finally, both the NDP and PCs are leaderless at the federal level, which makes it harder for provincial party leaders to get noticed. Without a strong federal leader who can attract media attention, those down ballot have a harder time to get the party’s brand in front of voters. Expect this to change in the fall when both parties elect their leaders and gain considerable media exposure that will trickle down to the provincial parties.

All this to say, those writing Wynne’s political obituary might want to hold off for a while yet. As they say, a year is a really long time in politics.