Stakes are high for Caroline Mulroney at Ontario Tory leadership debate: experts

Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney (left to right) are currently in the race to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. File / The Canadian Press / Global News

TORONTO — As the contenders to lead Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives prepare to face off in public for the first time, experts say Thursday’s debate brings a crucial opportunity for candidates to seize control of a race that has so far been dominated by one voice.

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, who was the first to throw his hat in the ring, has set the agenda in the early days of the leadership race by denouncing the party’s proposed carbon tax and promising to revisit the province’s controversial sex education curriculum.

As a result, experts said, his opponents have had no choice but to spell out — and at times reconsider — their positions on those issues regardless of their own priorities.

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The hour-long debate will give Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney a chance to prove they can take charge and draw attention to their own ideas, said Kathy Brock, a policy expert and political science professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“Both Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott need to make sure that they are putting their issues onto the agenda and they are not letting Doug Ford drive it and to push back a little bit at him,” Brock said.

The carbon tax — which Ford, Elliott and Mulroney now all oppose _ and how to replace it will likely emerge as a key issue in the debate as the candidates seek ways to differentiate themselves, Brock said.

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Their stance on the rest of the platform issued under former Tory leader Patrick Brown could also show whether they plan to take the party in a new direction, she said.

The province’s finances are also likely to take centre stage as at least one candidate has vowed to recoup some of the revenue lost by axing the carbon tax by cutting costs in the public sector, she said. Those cuts could drive away some of the voters the Progressive Conservatives hope to steal from the Liberals and New Democrats, she said.

Each of the three top candidates will have to overcome challenges in order to win over viewers, experts said. A fourth candidate, social conservative Tanya Granic Allen, joined the race earlier this week and said she will also participate.

The stakes are highest for Mulroney, a rookie politician and relative unknown who must prove she can discuss policy and hold her own against more experienced and forceful rivals, they said.

“The absolutely critical thing for her to do is to present the image of herself to the public that she wants them to hold onto throughout this campaign. That’s absolutely critical because she does not have a high profile yet and she does not want the Liberals to brand her if she becomes leader of the party,” Brock said.

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“The pressure’s on. This is a testing ground,” she said.

Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said Mulroney has only faced “softball” questions so far and may not be ready for a more confrontational setting.

“She’s going to have a lot of trouble and I expect it’s going to be the hardest for her,” he said. “I mean, Doug Ford is just playing a rough and tough game and I don’t know whether she can handle it with him, I think he’s going to be pretty bruisey on her and put her right out the race and then boom! then go after Christine Elliott.”

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Elliott, meanwhile, will have to strike a balance between appealing to socially conservative voters who may otherwise favour Ford and her own more moderate approach, Jacek said.

The former MPP, who spent the last few years at the province’s health-care ombudsman, will also have to show her commitment to the party, said Anna Esselment, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo.

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“She quit after the last race, and that probably didn’t sit well with the broader membership,” Esselment said.

As for Ford, whose base is anchored in Toronto, he must show his grasp of policy and issues affecting those outside the city as well as his ability to muster support across the province, Brock said.

Thursday’s debate will take place in Toronto and air on TVOntario in the evening. The host of TVO’s flagship current events program The Agenda, Steve Paikin, will moderate.

The veteran journalist was recently accused of sexual harassment by a Toronto woman, allegations he says are “complete fiction.” The public broadcaster has said Paikin will continue to host The Agenda while an independent third party investigates the allegations.

The Tory leadership candidates will have another opportunity to face off on Feb. 28 in a final debate to be held in Ottawa.

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