HAMILTON—After 10 years in the job through three elections, New Democrat Andrea Horwath heads into a weekend leadership review in her strongest position yet and determined to build on it.
She runs the official opposition to Premier Doug Ford — a promotion from voters in last June’s election — with 40 MPPs, the party’s biggest caucus since the Bob Rae government of the early 1990s.
But observers of provincial politics warn the next election in 2022 likely won’t be as easy for Horwath as 2018, when her New Democrats doubled their seat count to emerge from perennial third-party status as the deeply unpopular Kathleen Wynne Liberals were demoted to a rump of seven members.
“Lots of things are at play here,” said University of Guelph politics professor Tamara Small, raising the possibility this term is Horwath’s “interlude” on the doorstep of power like the federal NDP experienced under the charismatic Jack Layton in 2011.
“It’s not clear whether the 2018 election was a one-time shift of the position of the NDP with the Liberals… or whether this is something more significant,” Small added.
Horwath is undeterred, with Ford and his Progressive Conservatives swooning in recent public opinion polls and Liberals embarking on a potentially stormy nine-month leadership race that will thrust a new rival on the scene.
“I’m looking ahead to government,” she told reporters ahead of the mandatory leadership review held every second year, describing the party as “invigorated” in the face of Ford government cutbacks and with 1,500 delegates expected at the convention ending Sunday.
“It isn’t enough just to fight Doug Ford. We also have to fight for a better province that Ontarians deserve, to articulate a vision, to offer hope,” added Horwath, who has been on the road doing roundtable policy discussions, town hall meetings, receptions and rallies when not hammering the Conservatives in the legislature’s daily question period.
Part of that vision is a “Green New Democratic Deal” she is unveiling at the weekend convention in the form of a policy and discussion paper looking to move Ontario to net-zero emissions in the battle against climate change.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for New Democrats to come together and map out our plan for running for government next time around,” said Horwath, who easily passed three previous leadership reviews. The vote takes place Saturday afternoon.
She did, however, face stiff criticism in the party in 2014 for squandering the balance of power in a minority Liberal legislature by triggering a snap election, handing Wynne a majority.
Two veteran Toronto New Democrats who lost their ridings in that vote said the party wasn’t ready for the election — despite controlling the timing — and was seen as tacking too far right. Horwath did not even have a campaign tour bus for the first week on the hustings.
She faced renewed sniping this week when former York-South Weston MPP Paul Ferreira took to Twitter saying that moving into second place in the legislature a year ago represents another squandered opportunity, despite the apparent success.
“Last election was handed to #ONDP on silver platter, but leadership limitations held it back. Friends, real leaders realize when it’s time to move on.”
Corbett noted Horwath’s personal popularity rating is almost double her party’s popular support but that isn’t translating to greater overall support in public opinion surveys, as voters disenchanted with Ford mostly fleeing to the Liberals under interim leader John Fraser and the Greens, led by the party’s lone Ontario MPP Mike Schreiner.
“The NDP doesn’t seem to be getting any benefit out of the Doug Ford fallout,” leaving Horwath with a challenge to preserve the “grand coalition” she enjoyed in the election a year ago, said the proprietor of Corbett Communications.
“Her New Democrats got all the core NDP vote, the occasional NDP vote and the wandering Liberal vote.”
Corbett’s poll for the Star released June 6 had Ford’s Conservatives at 32 per cent support, the NDP at 27, the Liberals with 26 and the Greens 13 per cent. Horwath enjoyed a net approval of +31 per cent. By comparison, Ford was at -53 per cent, interim Liberal leader John Fraser +4 per cent, and Green Leader Mike Schreiner at +16 per cent.
“Andrea is the NDP in people’s eyes,” the pollster added. “She’s clearly the only NDP leader in sight.”
Political scientist Nadia Verrelli of Laurentian University in Sudbury said it’s smart for Horwath to start road-testing policies for the next election now — with the Liberals in disarray and the Ford government struggling — in a bid to cement any advantage she can get.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in three years, who the Liberal leader is going to be, where Doug Ford is?”
With files from Robert Benzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1