Andrea Horwath makes her play to displace the Liberals among Ontario's left

Opinion: With a platform that's progressive and relatively fiscally restrained, the Ontario NDP is hoping to seize its window for success. Can it rise above the noise?

After watching the Ontario Liberals avoid relegation to the opposition benches on two previous occasions, Andrea Horwath is determined to prevent a hat-trick of electoral escapes.

To help paint the picture of what the Ontario NDP leader would do as premier, the party released its 97-page platform early. It was quickly followed with a bold frame: “Now the choice is between myself and Mr. Ford,” Horwath declared.

The NDP leader reckons Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals are in such an irredeemable state she needn’t worry about them in the race to win government. It’s a sound bet, given the Liberal approval rating is hovering somewhere under half that of Donald Trump. If ever there was a time for the NDP to gun for second place, now is it.

Not that Horwath will admit her goal is the set of steak knives, and not the Cadillac. But the gap between the NDP and PCs is too big for even Ricky Roma to close; the Liberals are the safer target. And for her efforts, 25 years after Bob Rae’s pricey and woe-be-gotten reign, Horwath might just be able to make voters feel good about the NDP again.

The Liberals’ pre-election budget certainly plays into the NDP’s hands, given it’s essentially a laundry list of traditional Dipper promises funded by equal measures of desperation and deficits. Unsurprisingly, recent polling shows NDP voters are satisfied with the budget. Well, why vote for an imitation when you can have the real thing? Sensing voter sensitivity to Ontario’s parlous fiscal state, Howarth is even pledging more fiscal discipline than Wynne, paid for by higher income and corporate taxes, a soaking all socialists can get behind.

While they’re similar on policy, Horwath and Wynne are an ocean apart on tone. Note that it’s “Mr. Ford” to the NDP leader, and not “Doug ‘TRUMPY’ Ford,” or whatever formulation the Liberals think will scare the bejeezus out of centrist voters in Ontario.

It might not seem fair to Team Wynne, but Doug Ford can play the role of the angry man because many Ontarians are bloody mad at this government. A decade’s worth of hydro shenanigans have stretched household budgets just as the Liberals’ creative accounting on the same question have stretched Ontario’s. Voters want someone to come in and clean house. It’s Horwath’s job to insert herself into the conversation when most of the media are focused on the more entertaining Ford.

And they’ll do it, it seems, with policy. The NDP’s “Change for the Better” platform is a serious read, free of the hokey new-age platitudes now favoured by their federal counterparts. Horwath is instead taking inspiration from the Mulcair era, which should provide a better return than it did in the 2015 federal election given the absence of a more charismatic juggernaut to the party’s left.

When it comes to the NDP policies themselves, Howarth has aped 2006-era Stephen Harper in form, if not substance, by focusing on five priorities: drug and dental coverage; ending “hallway” medicine and fixing seniors care; cutting hydro bills by 30 per cent; acting on student debt; and taxing the aforementioned better-off. These priorities might not all be doable in the current fiscal climate, but they’ll probably sound like things worth doing to half of the electorate.

This measured approach sets disgruntled voters up for Horwath’s preferred choice: her vs. Doug Ford. You might be angry at Liberal incompetence, Horwath will argue, but our plan beats Ford’s, which is, at least for right now, no plan at all. In other words, getting mad about Liberal mistakes won’t fix them—only a plan to correct them will.

Horwath, however, will need to show more discipline while making her case. Playing the role of political science professor on the Sunday chat shows and discussing splits among progressive voters and their impact on the electability of the right, as Horwath did Sunday on The West Block, might be true—but it’s beside the point. People who are open to change need to hear her hammer her five priorities; she won’t get very many chances to speak directly to voters over the course of what promises to be a wild and noisy race.

Meanwhile, hysteria is the only route left for Wynne to travel. Having been in government for 15 years, the Liberals aren’t well-placed to sell the NDP-appropriated policies of their “please, please, puh-leaze re-elect us” budget; things that are important tend to get done over a decade and a half in power, not grasped at as the clock winds down. And so, if you can’t sell your program, you sound the alarm about the other guys’ plans—or just about the other guy, if you’re up against Doug Ford.

Horwath’s respectful approach to Ford, coupled with the party’s grown-up platform, is meant to woo resigned left-of-centre voters over to the orange camp. The motivation is certainly there for Horwath, who has been NDP leader for nearly ten years, and might not survive another election if she doesn’t get the job done. But if their platform is any indication, this is the best chance the Ontario NDP have had in a generation to supplant the Liberals on the left.