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Andrea Horwath takes sharp left turn to defend embattled leadership

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks to reporters before the 2014 budget was delivered at Queen's Park in Toronto on Monday, July 14, 2014.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Andrea Horwath is making a sharp left turn to defend her embattled leadership and reposition her New Democrats in the new parliament.

In a tour-de-force speech Saturday, she vowed to chart a more progressive course, and to listen more closely to her party's grassroots.

"We believe in fighting each and every day for a more equal society," Ms. Horwath told more than 200 members of the party's provincial council at a Toronto hotel. "We believe in a strong and active role for government, because there are many things that are more important than making a buck in the marketplace."

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The soaring rhetoric was a major change from last June's election, when the NDP campaigned on a platform of small-ball populism, pointedly abandoning ambitious policies such as a provincial pension plan. That approach caused the party to lose three Toronto seats to the Liberals, who outflanked them on leftwing issues such as transit and raising the minimum wage. It also fomented internal dissent, with some New Democrats refusing to campaign for Ms. Horwath during the election.

She must undergo a mandatory leadership review in November, and is working hard to unite the party around her before then. This weekend, she will face her first significant test, with a debate over a system that allows the party office to allocate unfilled delegate spots for the convention. Ms. Horwath's critics charge she could use the system to stack the leadership review vote with her loyalists.

Party sources say the election campaign was too undemocratic, run by a handful of people close to Ms. Horwath who decreed there would be no big picture pledges. The campaign also focused too strongly on winning Southwest Ontario – a region hard-hit with the decline of the manufacturing sector – at the expense of Toronto and the GTA, the sources said. While emphasizing populist pocketbook issues worked in the southwest,  they contend it made it harder for party activists elsewhere to feel they were fighting for anything important and consequently led to a lack of motivation.

Ms. Horwath made a bid to correct both problems Saturday.

In a speech that bordered on liturgy, she rhymed off example after example of progressive values – from universal health care to fighting poverty to better pensions to public transit – that she would embrace over the next four years. And she tugged at NDP heartstrings, at one point referencing the party's revered late federal leader, Jack Layton.

"Love is better than anger, as a good friend reminded us a few years ago. We are the party of hope. We are the party of optimism," she said. "In a time when the very, very few continue to amass so much for themselves while everyone else is falling behind, we have never been more relevant."

By turns impassioned, folksy and humorous, her address went over well with the crowd, which frequently leapt to its feet to applaud amid cries of "yeah!" and "that's what I want to hear!"

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"Every single New Democrat should be able to see themselves in our campaigns," Ms. Horwath said. "We must reach out as broadly as possible, both within our party and to our allies in our movement, when crafting both our commitments and our campaigns."

And she laid out a strategy for taking down the governing Liberals. While Premier Kathleen Wynne campaigned on a left-leaning platform, her fiscal plan includes an aggressive plan to slash spending to erase the deficit. Ms. Horwath said those cuts will open up some space for the NDP to attack the government from the progressive side of the spectrum.

"This isn't Tim Hudak-lite – this is Tim Hudak on speed," Ms. Horwath said of the Liberals' planned spending cuts. "If the people of Ontario believe this government mislead them, it will lose their support and it will dig its own grave – with some help from us."

Ms. Horwath has already shaken up her office, replacing long-time chief of staff Gissel Yanez with Michael Balagus, the former top aide to Manitoba premiers Gary Doer and Greg Selinger. Her principal advisor, Elliott Anderson, also left over the summer, and Ms. Horwath brought in former MPP Jonah Schein and Brian Topp, the federal strategic guru, as advisors.

Former long-time MPP Rosario Marchese, who lost his re-election bid in Trinity-Spadina to a Liberal, called it a "great speech." He blamed the NDP's losses in Toronto on the party's reluctance to campaign on big issues such as a pension, the minimum wage and public transit.

He said Ms. Horwath had got that message.

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"Her speech is a reflection of what happened in the election. She is reflecting New Democrats in the way they want to be reflected," he said. "There are things that we could have done in the campaign, and the leader is learning from that, and that's what matters."

Mr. Marchese said Ms. Horwath should stay on as leader and fight the next election in four years' time.

MPP Cheri Di Novo, who has criticised the last campaign for moving away from the NDP's traditional focus on social justice, wouldn't say whether she thought Ms. Horwath deserved to remain.

"I'm going to leave that to the party, the party makes that call," she said.

But Ms. Di Novo applauded the changes that Ms. Horwath has made post-election.

"What we're seeing now is a phenomenal exercise in democracy. You're seeing people come forward people speaking their minds, you're seeing a change in direction you're seeing a new chief of staff," she said.

Ms. Di Novo caused a minor stir when she was photographed at a meeting of the NDP's socialist caucus last weekend, during which the caucus explicitly called for Ms. Horwath's ouster. But Ms. Di Novo said she did not know that topic was even on the agenda when she attended the meeting.

While the socialist caucus has been the most vocal opposition to Ms. Horwath's leadership, party sources acknowledge the dissent has been far more widespread than that, encompassing many regular, rank-and-file members, particularly in Toronto.

For her part, Ms. Horwath made no direct reference to the potential threat to her leadership. But she did obliquely warn about the perils of switching leaders. Only by uniting, she said, will the party be able to effectively fight the Liberals.

"The Liberals need to be opposed in the legislature by a united, focused, determined opposition," she said. "Which won't be coming from the Tories, because they're going to be spending the next couple of years in the repair shop."

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