Ontario Election: Q&A with NDP leader Andrea Horwath

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath meets with people at the Malvern Town Centre food court in Toronto on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

If there’s one thing Andrea Horwath’s good at, it’s people – meeting them, engaging with them, glad-handing as though it were a normal thing to do and not weird political pantomime. So even at a staged food court photo-op at the Malvern Town Centre in northeast Toronto, she conversed with patrons seated around her as though they were all there by happy accident, without a bank of cameras and smartphones recording her every word.

Horwath is banking on that people-friendly persona to help her now, along with a populist agenda that’s come under fire from those looking for something more progressive – or more substantial – from the leader of a third party she’s quick to note has doubled in size since she took the reins.

It could work. Or it could falter in the face of Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s strident austerity agenda and Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne’s ambitious progressive promises, making the NDP’s previous gains look like a flash in the pan.

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READ MORE: Will voters buy Andrea Horwath’s common sense evolution?

Horwath took a few minutes after her food court chats to speak with Global News (and was very gracious when we went three minutes over the allotted time).

So what do you think of the campaign so far?

You know, the campaign’s been a great way to talk to Ontarians about our vision for a government that makes sense that is focused on their priorities, that wants to deliver on affordability, on jobs, on accountability, making sure tax dollars are respected. And it’s been going very well.

There’s been lots of talk of job creation from all three parties. I mean, money the government’s given out so far, plans for more – does the term ‘job creation’ make any sense? Can governments do that?

Well I mean the thing that’s different between us and our plan and the other two parties is Mr. Hudak just wants to give blank cheques through tax cuts, Ms. Wynne wants to give blank cheques through grants – neither of those two methods have seemed to do very much for Ontario. …

Our plan’s a little bit different: We want to actually reward the companies that are creating jobs and reward the companies that are investing in Ontario – that way we’re not giving a blank cheque, we’re saying, ‘You hire people, that’s when you get the tax break; you invest in Ontario, that’s when you get the tax break.’ Not just a hope and a dream, but real results.

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READ MORE: Ontario gave 109 companies $765M over eight years. So where are the jobs?

But isn’t that a different kind of a blank cheque? I mean, there’s nothing to prevent the company from picking up and leaving two years later or from hiring temporary workers as opposed to full time ones…

Well the plan that we have requires at least a year of employment, so that’s something we are committed to. But … one of the biggest problems we have in this province is we don’t have a lot of productivity investment; we don’t have those companies investing in their tech, investing in new machinery and equipment, expanding their footprint – that’s what we want to see.

We were at a facility in Windsor not too long ago, a couple of days ago, they’re an advanced manufacturing plant, they’ve got all sorts of robotic processes they’ve brought online. And they’ve told us clearly that had this investment and jobs tax credit been in place, it would have given them a little more room to be a little more flexible, and perhaps allowed them to bring on more equipment and new product lines sooner. And that’s exactly the kind of thing we want to do. We want to incent the behaviours that help our economy in terms of investment and jobs.

But the problem isn’t sometimes so much lack of work as lack of stable work – we’re seeing problems with precarious employment across the province…

There’s no doubt there are issues around precarious employment, around temp agencies, in particular. And we’ve seen a proliferation of that over the last 10 years with the Liberals, frankly. But one thing we’re sure of is that if those companies are investing in Ontario, if they are actually making that commitment by bringing the new equipment online, by upgrading their processes by expanding their plant and their footprint, then the likelihood of their staying is greater. If they’re not doing that, then you can be sure the likelihood of them moving those jobs to somewhere that is making those investments is greater.

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For example, we know the Heinz plant in Leamington left to a jurisdiction which actually has jobs tax credits. The plant that’s leaving Brampton, Unilever, is going to Missouri, where they have job-creation tax credits. And so I think it’s clear there’s evidence these kinds of credits help. In Manitoba there are investment tax credits right now that have been in place for a couple of years and that province has the most rapid rate of productivity investment in the country – much higher than Canada’s rate and much, much higher than Ontario’s rate. So they’re doing something right. And so let’s look at what’s happening in the real world in other jurisdictions and try that in Ontario.

READ MORE: What’s behind Ontario’s job-market woes? (Hint: Not the recession)

But it’ll still be cheaper for me to hire 20 part-time workers than 10 full-time ones.

Well I think it all depends on the employer and their kind of vision for the future. And what we want to do is partner with those employers that want to partner with Ontario – not just give a blank cheque on a hope and a prayer that somehow the result is going to be there. We’re going to reward the results. That’s what makes sense: Reward the results.

How does this campaign compare to the last one, which was your first as leader?

Well I know what to expect, at least in terms of the rigours of the process, the early mornings, the late nights, those kinds of things. It’s an exciting campaign, though: There’s a real sense that people want to see change in Ontario. There’s a real sense of frustration with the Liberal government. And that’s why I couldn’t in good conscience support a budget that was throwing the stars and the moon into a plan that I had no confidence, and I think the people had no confidence, that the Liberals would be able to fulfil.

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Even though you liked the budget.

Well you know there were pieces of that budget that were interesting to me. But I think the most important thing is that it was too much, you know? It was 70-odd ideas that I really didnt have the confidence they’d be able to fulfill. They couldn’t even get three priorities fulfilled in the last budget. How could anyone believe they could get this done? They can’t even build a raft – how could anyone believe they could build a ship?

Was there anything in there that you wouldn’t have supported?

What we are going to be putting forward to Ontarians is our vision for the future, our priorities, which are based on what we’re hearing from them. Priorities that address respecting the tax dollar, priorities that address jobs, the affordability of everyday life, and making the health care system responsive to their needs.

WATCH: Why’d the NDP vote down a budget it liked?

But so far what you’ve put forward is identical to your 2011 platform.

Uh no, in fact, that’s not the case. We’ve talked about a number of different issues. We will continue to bring issues forward that are based on the priorities of Ontarians. And I think that’s what people want: They want government that makes sense; they want government that sets priorities, but a government that’s actually committed to getting results.

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But the HST is the same, the auto insurance is the same, the tax credit for job creation is the same, the PDF on your website is exactly the same.

So we are going to be spending the next couple of days bringing more priorities forward. But the taking the HST off electricity is something we’ve talked about, it’s something Ontarians want: They want their bills to be more affordable. Just because the Liberals haven’t done it doesn’t mean there’s a reason for us not to do it. … So we’re going to keep that as a priority.

Same as with auto insurance rates. We know that’s a priority for them. Our last platform, I don’t know that we actually talked about the 15 per cent [reduction], per se. But we’ve identified that is absolutely a priority for Ontarians and we want to make that happen. It’s about making life affordable for folks. Similarly, when we look at the health care system, for example, one of the things we tried to get the government to do is to get home care wait times under control. These are ideas that we’ve heard from Ontarians and so we are going to be bringing a few more ideas forward because there are priorities Ontarians have identified for us that they want to see some real action on, and that’s what we’re going to do.

Isn’t it a little bit awkward, though, even from a perception perspective, that if I want to find out more about the NDPs policies, I go to the website and the file I see says “election October 6”?

We want to make sure we are taking the time to bring our ideas forward in a way that people can grasp them and can take the time to look at them thoughtfully. So we’re not going to lay them on the table all at once because that way everything gets lost in the shuffle. We want to make sure that people understand our vision and are able to make a thoughtful decision when June 12 comes. So over the next little while we are going to continue to put forward our ideas and have our fully costed plan that shows all of the investments as well as all of the revenues and we’ll show how we will be able to tackle that deficit by 2017-18. And when people go to the polls on the 12 of June they will certainly know everything that New Democrats are planning to do to respond to their needs.

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 WATCH: Is the NDP running on its 2011 platform?

Are you worried the Liberals are now more progressive than the NDP?

Uh no, I think people are very, very concerned about the Liberals’ lack of focus and their penchant to throw everything on the table but get nothing done. I think that’s where people are at. I mean, you can make all the promises in the world, and you know what, making promises is good, but actually delivering on those promises, that’s better. And that’s what people expect. And that’s what they haven’t seen from the Liberals.

But the policies they’ve put forward – both proposed and enacted – I mean, the Liberals are much more, you know, geared toward, uh, a social responsibility kind of platform. … An HST cut benefits everyone equally and actually unequally benefits people who are spending more, right? So does that worry you that the Liberals are now seen as the party of, you know, inequality combatting?

I don’t think people see things in those terms. I think what people want is a government that makes sense and that can actually deliver on its promises and I think the Liberals have shown that they can’t deliver on their promises and they haven’t done very well in that regard. So for me what this campaign is about, is listening to Ontarians, identifying their priorities, showing there are practical solutions to some of the major issues that they face and providing a vision that helps us tackle those problems.

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But you’re now much more populist than progressive. Was that a conscious choice?

I think the most important thing that any political party should do is listen to the people they purport to represent and then try to solve the problems they identify. And that’s why we’re focused on jobs, we’re focused on affordability, we’re focused on respecting the tax dollar, which is a huge issue for Ontarians. And we’re focused on making sure the health care system is there for them when they need it. I think people want solutions that make sense and they want a government that makes sense. And that’s what we’re prepared to offer.

WATCH: The NDP’s populist ‘common sense’ evolution

Are there purposeful repetitions between “a government that makes sense” and the [Mike Harris government’s] “common sense revolution”? Was that a conscious decision?
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What I’ve heard from people many times over the last couple of years as we’ve brought our ideas forward, as we’ve listened to them and as we’ve told the government over the last two budgets of a minority government what we’ve heard, we’ve simply reflected back what Ontarians have been telling us. And so their response is, ‘That makes sense.’ It makes sense because it’s their own ideas, their own issues, their own priorities that they’ve identified. So for us that makes sense. It makes sense to try to solve the problems that Ontarians are facing in ways that are responsible, in ways that are achievable and in ways that we can deliver.

If there’s more scrutiny on the NDP than there has been before, just because of how you did in the last election, you have much more seats and more clout, arguably, are you worried people will see a lack of substance?

I’m looking forward to this campaign continuing to roll out to give Ontarians a chance to get to know our ideas, to understand where we’re coming from and make the choice on June 12. And I trust that Ontarians will make the right choice. And, you know what? No matter what role they give me, I will perform and deliver for them because that’s what I’m committed to doing. And I think I’ve proven over the last couple of years that I’m able to do that.

WATCH: Does the NDP lack substance?

Do you still think now was the right time for an election?

I think it was clearly the appropriate decision when I looked at that budget and saw all those promises, knowing the government was unable to deliver on promises from last time. I just couldn’t, in good conscience, support that budget. And people have told me that they’re ready to make a choice – they’re ready to set a new course for Ontario. And so I have to respect that.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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