Opinion | NDP’s Andrea Horwath finds her footing on progressive platform

 thestar.com  4/16/2018 11:27:19 PM 

This just in — Ontario’s Tories have ceded first place to the opposition New Democrats.

Not in polls, but platforms.

With the June 7 election just weeks away, Andrea Horwath’s NDP is first out of the gate with a fully-costed, 97-page catalogue of campaign promises if they form Ontario’s next government. Or a shopping list, should the election produce a minority government that requires NDP support to prop it up.

Caring and sharing (as in taxing) top the list — cheaper child care (averaging $12 a day, details to come); partial pharmacare for all ages; denticare for those who need it; and more health care spending; all bankrolled by higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Lower hydro rates also rank high.

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If all this sounds familiar, it is — last month’s Liberal budget was similar, but different. Premier Kathleen Wynne promised free child care for pre-schoolers, financed by even bigger deficit spending than the NDP, but the Liberals’ final campaign platform remains a closely guarded secret.

In fact, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives led the way on ideas last November when they unveiled The People’s Guarantee, but their campaign policies are now in limbo. As soon as Doug Ford replaced Patrick Brown as party leader last month, he suspended the PC platform until further notice — leaving the field wide open for New Democrats to get a head start.

To their credit, the NDP is attempting to set the agenda. As they’ve been trying to do ever since Horwath’s flawed 2014 campaign, which famously deviated from the party’s ideals and let Wynne eat their lunch on the left.

Now, the NDP is back — back to their roots as a progressive force. And backed by a leader who increasingly looks like she’s on a roll, even if she remains stuck in the polls.

It’s about time, because Horwath is running out of time. This is her third provincial campaign, and nearly nine years after becoming leader she is now the political veteran facing off against a rookie Ford and a wounded Wynne.

It has been a slow climb, but judging by her highly charged speech to party supporters Monday — roused by the throbbing beat of Young & Wild (by the Strumbellas) — the NDP leader is finding her mojo.

With mojo comes the magic of campaign math, which can sometimes be an optical illusion. While Horwath may gain traction with soaring rhetoric, her platform remains slippery in spots — brimming with good ideas on caring, but burdened by a black hole on hydro promises that sound too good to be true.

Like the Liberals with their ambitious budgetary spending, the New Democrats stress caring while downplaying paying for it.

Horwath’s child care plan will cost $12 a day on average (free for household incomes below $40,000), but what if your family income exceeds, say, $85,000? Can’t say just yet, but we’ll get back to you once we’re in government.

How much less will hydro cost you? Trust us, we can do what no other party in power has ever done with hydroelectric power — reduce hydro costs (and therefore rates) by an unprecedented 30 per cent.

The NDP keeps blaming rising hydro rates on the Liberals’ partial privatization of Hydro One — a logical leap, given that the utility’s transmission rates remain independently regulated. In another leap (of faith), Horwath vows to buy back what Wynne sold for more than $9 billion, and claims she can do it without costing taxpayers a penny: she’ll merely repurpose what’s left of the dividend stream from the government’s remaining stake in Hydro One to buy the rest of it back.

Were it only so easy to buy companies using dividends. But the shell game gets worse, for those precious dividend streams are already accounted for in future budgetary spending, so if the money is repurposed to buy back Hydro One, a future NDP government would have to replace the lost funds to pay for ongoing budget items.

The Hydro One buy-back may be Horwath’s Achilles’ heel as she tries to push an otherwise plausibly bold platform on child care. The NDP fiscal plan calls for a budget deficit of roughly half the $6.7 billion projected in the Liberal budget in 2018-19, thanks to higher taxes on the rich and corporations — a party perennial, but fair enough.

May the best platform prevail in the coming campaign. That is, if campaign platforms matter anymore.

They surely do for New Democrats, who were first off the mark Monday; and the Liberals have promised one soon (based on their spring budget). We’ll see soon enough whether Ford’s PCs — and voters — are content to rely on campaign populism as a substitute for substance.

Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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