If you listened closely to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s unofficial campaign launch on St. Patrick’s Day, you would have heard her repeat the same two words: change and cynicism.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath makes an announcement in Toronto, on Saturday, March 17, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Donovan)

What you wouldn’t have heard much were direct attacks on the policies of her Liberal rival, Kathleen Wynne.

Horwath can’t do much to criticize the Liberals’ policy agenda; it’s basically a New Democrat’s dream.

Hiking the minimum wage to $14 an hour, creating free pharmacare for people under 25, imposing rent control and offering free university and college tuition are all things more typically associated with the NDP than the Liberals, but Wynne has done it all.

After five years of Wynne as premier, there seems to be so little left for Horwath to promise that the NDP’s signature policies have so far included universal dental care and gradually buying back shares in the public hydro utility Hydro One.

But just because the Liberals have taken on many of the leftist policies normally reserved for the NDP, that doesn’t mean Horwath can’t win.

Both University of Toronto political scientist Chris Cochrane and Carleton University professor Paul Thomas agree that Horwath’s biggest asset is the voters’ strong desire for change, combined with a lack of baggage.

Poll after poll has found Ontarians want a change in government after nearly 15 years of Liberals. A whopping 81 per cent of those polled by DART Research for NEWSTALK 1010 in March agreed with the statement “it is time for another provincial party to take over.”

Meanwhile, a poll by Mainstreet Research in March found that nearly two in three people view Wynne unfavourably and nearly half dislike Progressive Conservative Doug Ford. Only about one in four disapprove of Andrea Horwath.

The NDP may be starting out in third place, but Cochrane and Thomas say that if Horwath can convince enough voters that she can provide a change in leadership from Wynne without turning the province in a different direction, she could unite the left and win.

Kathleen Wynne speaks with Andrea Horwath

Kathleen Wynne, left, speaks with Andrea Horwath at Toronto's Ryerson University on Wednesday, February 28, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Emphasis on cynicism

One way for Horwath to highlight that she would represent a change in leadership style, if not policy direction, is to paint the Liberals as cynics.

There’s already evidence Horwath is taking this strategy.

Just look at how she responded after the Liberals announced $2.1 billion over four years in funding for mental health care.

“After 15 years in office, anything the Liberal government wanted to do, they would have already done,” Horwath said. “Today’s announcement is at least a decade overdue.”

Thomas says it was cynical of Wynne to prorogue parliament just days before delivering the 2018 budget, a move the Liberals made to grab some extra media attention.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath looks over the provincial budget at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, April 23, 2015. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

After the throne speech, Horwath didn’t paint the Liberals as wrong for what they promised, but as cynical for doing it so late in their term.

The difference between the NDP and the Liberals, Horwath said, is “we believe in these things before elections and after elections.”

Cochrane says Wynne's minimum wage hike is a popular policy -- a Forum Research poll in January found nearly two in three were in favour -- but even that could end up backfiring on the Liberals and benefit the NDP.

That’s because the Liberals ignored their own task force’s advice to increase the wage at the rate of inflation, even after Wynne claimed the task force had “depoliticized” the process.

The jury is still out on whether the speed of the increase has cost jobs. After Statistics Canada reported that Ontario shed 59,300 part-time jobs in January, some economists were already blaming the 20 per cent wage hike.

“If by expediting the minimum wage increase, they ended up costing jobs, then again you have to have images of the gas plants scandal,” Cochrane says.

In the gas plants scandal, the Liberals looked like they were “willing to throw away hundreds of millions in order to win or help themselves win an election,” he says. “If they’re willing to throw away tens of thousands of jobs to win an election, I think that would be (seen as) unforgivable.”

How to flip Liberals

Thomas says the trick for Horwath will be to convince Liberal voters to make the switch to her party without creating too much “cognitive dissonance” about the fact they voted Liberal in the past.

Rather than suggesting “Liberals are stupid,” Thomas says Horwath has to “find an olive branch, to say, ‘Kathleen Wynne has lost her way … let’s move forward with other people in charge.’”

This may explain why Horwath was recently quoting former Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty.

“We have a party that is old and tired and needs to be replaced,” Horwath told CTV’s Power Play in March. “That’s what (McGuinty) said about the (Mike Harris) conservatives back in 2003 … That’s where the Liberals are today. We definitely need some change.”

Thomas points out that the “olive branch” strategy seemed to work for Justin Trudeau.

In late 2013, Trudeau was in third place and knew he would need to cosy up to NDP supporters if he was going to win in 2015, so he praised late NDP leader Jack Layton.

“Make no mistake, the NDP is no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton,” Trudeau said after the Liberals won a byelection in Montreal. “It is the Liberal party tonight that proved hope is stronger than fear, that positive politics can and should win out over the negative,” he added.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath

Andrea Horwath takes part in a competition during the International Plowing Match in Harriston, Ont. on Tuesday, September 20, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah Yoon)

Thomas says that was Trudeau's signal to NDP voters that they may have been wise to support the New Democrats in the past, but not in the future.

Cochrane agrees that there are lessons for Horwath in Trudeau’s come-from-behind majority win.

“Support can consolidate pretty quickly when both the Liberals and NDP are pursuing exactly the same voters in exactly the same places, with the exact same policies,” he says.

“Considering (they) have the policies which are nearly identical to what the Liberals are proposing,” Cochrane says, “the NDP are well-positioned to pick up the pieces if the Liberals fall apart.”

Also:

How Doug Ford could win the Ontario election
How Kathleen Wynne could win the Ontario election