Tim Hudak has been taking some criticism for declining to take part in Monday’s leaders’ debate, focused on northern Ontario, in Thunder Bay. It’s the only opportunity other than the lone general debate (on June 3) for the three people with a chance of being premier to face off against each other. In the 2011 campaign, Mr. Hudak and Andrea Horwath participated while Dalton McGuinty took a pass; now Mr. McGuinty’s replacement Kathleen Wynne has agreed to appear alongside Ms. Horwath, and Mr. Hudak has decided he has better things to do.
The most obvious explanation for his absence, and in large part the correct one, is that there just isn’t much advantage for him in speaking to the north. His party holds one northern seat, North Bay, that it can safely expect to keep if for no other reason than the popularity of incumbent MPP (and former mayor) Vic Fedeli; it has very little chance elsewhere in this part of the province.
There is another consideration, though, that also helps explain why Mr. Hudak is keeping his distance from Monday’s event.
Talk to people working on Mr. Hudak’s campaign, and the biggest concern you’ll hear about how the campaign has played out so far is the performance of the NDP. Although they’re competing with the New Democrats for a few seats in southwestern Ontario, the Tories are counting on them to split votes with the Liberals elsewhere, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. They’re worried that Ms. Horwath has underperformed so far, allowing Ms. Wynne to succeed in her efforts to present this as a two-horse race and rally left-of-centre voters behind her.
If that is indeed what’s happening – and again, it’s really hard for anyone to get a full read of this campaign’s dynamics – there’s only so much the Tories can do about it. But there are small opportunities here and there to help Ms. Horwath get taken seriously, and the northern debate might be one of those.
Obviously, very few people south of Sudbury are going to watch. But because there’s so little opportunity to see the party leaders interacting with each other, media interest will be high. And Mr. Hudak’s absence ensures that, when clips of the debate lead provincial election coverage on Monday night or photos of it run online and in the paper on Tuesday morning, Ontarians will see Ms. Horwath and Ms. Wynne going head-to-head, with the former implicitly presented as being on an equal footing with the latter.
It’s unlikely the Tories expect this event in Thunder Bay to be a decisive moment for them one way or the other. But cynical though the calculation may be, it’s not hard to see why they find more advantage than disadvantage in skipping it.