Two of three will be here [Northern Ontario leadership debate] – (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal editorial – September 15, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

FROM time to time, politicians find themselves in no-win situations. Such was the case for Ontario’s three leading political party leaders when they were invited to participate in an election debate in Thunder Bay on northern issues. Attend and set a precedent that other regions will notice. Refuse and face a backlash from northern voters.

Handlers for Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and NDP leader Andrea Horwath did neither of these things at the outset. For weeks following an invitation from the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, the three camps bobbed and weaved, trying to figure out what the others would do while keeping NOMA and northerners waiting.

In the end, it was Horwath who forced the issue. In a letter to NOMA on Tuesday, the NDP leader accepted the invitation. In fact, Horwath had been after her competitors from the start of talks for the televised province-wide leaders debate to have two others outside Toronto, one here in the North. Parties deferred to the TV network consortium which did not offer more than the Toronto forum.

Wednesday morning, the Tories announced that “weeks of negotiations have finally resulted in an agreement for a leaders debate to be held in the North.

“Tim Hudak is delighted to have this opportunity to bring our message of change to a northern leaders debate with Andrea Horwath and Dalton McGuinty, if McGuinty decides to show up.”

The waiting game was on, but the Liberals didn’t bite. By midday Wednesday, NOMA executive director Charla Robinson still hadn’t heard from the Liberals, but learned that McGuinty had told media at a campaign stop in Ottawa that he would not participate in the Thunder Bay debate. NOMA issued a statement shortly after 2 p.m., to say Hudak and Horwath were confirmed. “Liberal Leader, Premier Dalton McGuinty, has also been invited to participate but has not yet confirmed his attendance,” it said.

Late Wednesday, Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle said the party told NOMA on Aug. 16 that McGuinty had “another commitment that day” and that an offer to “make someone else available” was declined. No wonder. It’s a leaders debate.

Robinson acknowledged that but said NOMA continued to press the Liberals since the denial came three weeks before the writ was even dropped. Were campaign events set up that far in advance?
Gravelle also said Liberal campaign chair Greg Sorbara has written to the television broadcast consortium asking it to dedicate one of the segments in the televised leaders’ debate to northern issues.

McGuinty is in city today, but his team has apparently weighed its options and determined the lesser of two evils is to risk northern criticism rather than alienate voters in other regions who could see the NOMA debate as conferring special attention on the North.

But while every part of Ontario faces a series of common problems, only the North is beset by massive problems around forestry, mining and their jurisdictional issues with respect to First Nations. Only the North has its own ministry, standing recognition by the province of the unique challenges around governing this region. Yet only the North has felt alienated by Queen’s Park for so long that it spawned a political party dedicated to separating from Ontario (though it’s had trouble finding candidates for this election).

Physician recruitment; energy pricing the Far North Act — these are among the things that northern voters would like to hear the party leaders address. They’ll hear the candidates, but having the leaders themselves respond directly to unscripted questions is the best way to learn what each of them would do as premier.

Horwath and Hudak managed to get to Thunder Bay to release their northern policy statements. McGuinty announced the Liberals’ northern and rural plan in London while Northern minister Gravelle and MPP Bill Mauro released it simultaneously in Thunder Bay. Tories and New Democrats have harped on McGuinty’s absence for five days, in part to try to embarrass him into attending the Thunder Bay debate. It seems he’s thought better of it, or has seen that things might only get worse. The premier risks leaving the impression that he would rather not have to defend his government’s record in Northern Ontario or that he thinks his two competitors will outdo him on that score.

This suggest he prefers to keep his campaign trained on the wider, provincial issues, the ones that lend themselves to wider, more general answers — the kind he can rehearse.

That other commitment must be pretty important.