Did Stories Prevail in the Ontario Leaders’ Debate?

Watching the leaders’ debate in the Ontario election, I noticed that New Democrat Andrea Horwath and Progressive Conservative were making considerable use of story-telling. The stories Horwath told were of named individuals, including her son, whom she claimed had been badly served by the Ontario health care system, in particular hospital emergency wards. The stories Hudak told were personal, dealing with his Slovakian immigrant ancestors, and his daughter’s medical treatments.

Horwath used her stories to attempt to refute Premier McGuinty’s assertion that the quality of health care (as measured by indicators such as waiting times) had improved during the last eight years. So when McGuinty presented data, Horwath adamantly shook her head, claiming that her cases told a different story. It appeared that the two leaders had different versions of reality.

Of course, it is always possible to have individual stories of service delivery problems or failures in an institution that, overall, is improving performance. The stories can reflect mistakes made by service providers or areas that remain problems (so, for example, cancer care could be improving faster than emergency services because spending on the former is increasing faster than the latter). While stories are no substitute for empirical policy analysis for a government in power, their intrinsic drama may be more persuasive in an election campaign than the recitation of statistical indicators.

How is an incumbent to respond in a debate to the opposition’s horror stories? One approach would be to ignore the stories and continue citing statistics. Another would be to admit that there are occasional problems, but that overall service is improving. Yet another might be to recognize that stories of problems always evoke public attention, while stories of successful treatment receive less attention. The incumbent could then argue that for every horror stories there are hundreds of stories of service being delivered successfully.

Both incumbent and opposition are appealing to the electorate to determine whether their own experience matches their claims. Still, the opposition has an advantage here, because, even if people have received good care in the past, the horror stories suggest that they might not in the future.

In Hudak’s case, the stories served both to introduce himself to the electorate and as a touchstone of his policies. His opposition to the Liberals’ proposed tax credit for new immigrants seems rooted in his family experience of getting ahead in Canada without such benefits. McGuinty accused Hudak of exhibiting a thread of xenophobia in his policy positions. Another way McGuinty might have put the point is that Hudak hasn’t transcended his own narrow experience, while he as premier has been required to think more broadly about the province and its role in the international economy.

So stories were a key component of the Ontario leader’s debate. Which of the stories we heard will resonate with the voters? Which will lead voters to identify with a candidate’s values or upbringing? Which will describe a fear, even a nightmare, that the voters share? Now that the debate has raised public attention to what has so far been a lackluster campaign, it will be fascinating to see which of the stories we heard in the debate continue to be retold during the final week of the campaign.

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