Since Ontario began its experiment with minority government back in 2011, Andrea Horwath has sought to cast herself as the only adult among the province's three party leaders – a natural co-operator and conciliator with more interest in achieving shared policy priorities than in playing political games.
So what was the NDP Leader's first move after the governing Liberals selected a centre-left premier whose main pitch was that she wanted to do a better job of making the legislature work? Well, naturally, it was to call for a public inquiry into the costly cancellation of power-plant constructions – a demand that, given the limited mystery of the circumstances around that controversy, appeared to be intended solely to ensure that Kathleen Wynne remains weighed down by her predecessor's baggage.
There was some method behind this. The New Democrats are sensitive to suggestions that they're about to become lapdogs, particularly after the non-story of a potential coalition with the Liberals briefly got traction. So to allay the fears of their supporters, and avoid letting the Progressive Conservatives paint themselves as the only true alternative to the status quo, they felt compelled to signal that they're committed to holding the government to account and are willing to play hardball.
But while that might have been a good reason to avoid letting the Liberals off the hook for the reckless way they spent public money, the decision to lead with that issue after Ms. Wynne's victory was a dangerous one – and not just because it played against type. In addition to confusing Ms. Horwath's brand, it also played into growing concerns about a lack of substance.
Despite his party's rigid, occasionally ham-fisted opposition to anything the government does, PC Leader Tim Hudak has spent the past several months rolling out a seemingly endless list of ideas about how he would like the province to do business differently. By contrast, Ms. Horwath kept an extremely low profile in the period after Dalton McGuinty's resignation announcement; when she did intermittently resurface, it was mostly to announce that she was launching various "consultations" to help her formulate policies on core issues such as jobs and the economy – this as she approaches her fourth anniversary on the job.
To interview Ms. Horwath has been to come away with the sense that she has very little idea what she would do with power if she were to win it. And at the start of this week, she gave the impression that she hasn't even given much serious thought to what she would like the current government to do differently, policy-wise.
Having had three months to consider what she might ask of Ms. Wynne, a premier who might be more willing to take on NDP causes than Mr. McGuinty was, the first request was purely, almost crassly political. Nor did it seem particularly well-justified; while the Liberals deserve to be held to account on the power plants, it's unclear why that requires an expensive inquiry rather than the work of legislative committees and the provincial auditor-general.
Ms. Horwath has scheduled a press conference for Wednesday morning at which she is to talk about her "priorities," so it is entirely possible that she'll start to flesh out what she would like to see in the coming Speech from the Throne, or in this spring's budget. And it should be noted that, contrary to the impression given by some reports, the public-inquiry call appears not to have been a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, so much as a starting point.
Both to give the legislature a chance of succeeding, and to position herself for an eventual claim to governing, Ms. Horwath needs to move beyond Monday's effort as well as the platitudes she has traded in previously.
Much of the way the NDP Leader has previously presented herself, part of which involved implicitly accusing her two male opponents of having too much testosterone, has been complicated by the Liberals' choice of Ms. Wynne. Up against a centre-left leader who has come out of the gate with a rather impressive effort to show her seriousness and reasonableness – holding long and expansive press conferences, appointing a who's who from government and policy circles to her transition team, staking out potential common ground with the New Democrats through social-assistance reform – Ms. Horwath needs to up her game.