Why Ontario's Liberals will 'win with Wynne'

  • National Newswatch

By Andrew Perez | June 25, 2013Kathleen Wynne has always defied the odds.From trailblazer social activist, to Toronto School Board trustee, turned heavyweight cabinet minister, and now the province's first woman and openly gay premier, Kathleen Wynne's remarkable rise to lead her party and province is one for the history books.But beyond being the first woman and openly gay premier of Ontario – a significant, if not symbolic, feat – Wynne is a 'first' in several other respects. She is the first leader in her party's modern history to hail from Toronto: the last Ontario Liberal leader from the provincial capital was Andy Thompson who served from 1964-1966.Wynne is also the first premier to come from her party's left flank and the first Liberal premier in the modern era who did not practice law prior to entering politics: Dalton McGuinty and David Peterson were both lawyers by trade, identified with the 'business liberal' wing of the party. Both men originated from mid-sized Ontario cities in keeping with their party's tradition of eschewing Toronto leaders.But five months into the job as premier of Canada's largest province, Wynne is making headlines – not for her trailblazer status – but for giving Ontario's Liberals a new lease on life amid challenging circumstances inherited from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.Wynne's political resilience, calm yet confident demeanour, and deft handling of a series of controversies (not of her making, despite what her opponents suggest) are turning heads in political circles of all stripes, leading to the ultimate question: can Wynne revive Liberal fortunes and lead the party to a fourth consecutive mandate?The short answer: absolutely. But here's why:Last fall, it looked as if things had hit rock bottom for Ontario's Liberals: the party was mired in third place in the polls, the opposition were unified in favour of pursuing a contempt motion against former Energy Minister Chris Bentley, and the government had become engrossed in an all-out war with their erstwhile allies in the labour movement – namely the teachers' unions.Then in mid-October – when the party's fortunes seemed as if they could not have plummeted any further – a hastily arranged press conference was called whereby then Premier McGuinty stunned his caucus by announcing his resignation, precipitating an immediate leadership contest.In a moment's notice, Liberals were essentially leaderless in their greatest time of need. But the ensuing leadership race proved to be a boon for party renewal, replenished its coffers, and strengthened party unity in a contest that was unusually civil and uneventful.Upon winning the leadership race and assuming office in early 2013, Premier Wynne confronted one fundamental task: put her own stamp on a decade-old Liberal government without throwing her predecessor under the bus. It's a delicate balancing act to master, but early indications suggest Wynne is succeeding.It's now evident Dalton McGuinty has done his successor few favours since leaving office earlier this year. In spite of this, Wynne has made repeated efforts to praise McGuinty's record, while clearly indicating her government will do things differently – both in style and substance.To date, the new premier has steered clear of the sort of internal warfare that characterized the Chretien-Martin transition in late 2003. (The federal Liberals suffered lasting damage as a result of what were largely self-inflicted wounds during the early part of that decade.)But beyond branding her new government in her own image, Wynne has accomplished much these past five months.She appointed a new cabinet, striking the right balance between veterans and rookies, ramped up the party's election readiness efforts, introduced and passed a budget out-maneuvering the NDP, and effectively stickhandled two muddled files left to her by her predecessor – unresolved contract negotiations with public school teachers and the gas plants saga.On teachers' contracts, Wynne's government recently restored labour peace by announcing an agreement with Ontario's public elementary teachers – the agreement included a two per cent raise to align their pay with Catholic teachers by September 2014.Wynne – a former Education Minister who was popular among educators – has made it a priority to extend an olive branch to Ontario's teachers to make amends for what was a testy relationship in the last year of McGuinty's tenure.A former School Board Trustee armed with a Master of Education degree, Wynne is a natural ally of the teaching profession well-equipped to recapture this powerful voting bloc.On the gas plants issue, the rookie premier has put her best foot forward troubleshooting a prolonged controversy that she inherited. Wynne's decision to apologize -- repeatedly -- for McGuinty's cancellation of signed contracts for gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville displayed grace, humility, and respect for voters.Above all, it was the right thing to do – not to mention a basic staple in crisis communications. When McGuinty's apology was not forthcoming, Wynne kept her cool: “I'm in this chair now and it's my responsibility to level with the people of Ontario about how I see the situation and how I feel about the situation and what I'm hearing from them,” she said.At this juncture, Wynne's strategy on these two ostensibly toxic files has enabled her party to not only return as a contender in Ontario politics, but to lead the parties – albeit marginally – in public support.According to a weighted average of all Ontario polls taken in April and May 2013 by ThreeHundredEight.com, Wynne's Liberals averaged 35.5 per cent support, Hudak's PCs were at 34.2 per cent, and Horwarth's New Democrats came in at 24.4 per cent.To be sure, the general accuracy of public opinion polling has come into serious question in recent months, and yet the weighted averages above are instructive insofar as they reveal Ontario's Liberals are no longer mired in third place.Moreover, this aggregated data tells the tale of two opposition parties stalled in second and third place respectively, and a decade-old government enjoying more than merely a 'dead cat bounce' from new leadership and a more accessible approach to governing.Against the backdrop of the Senate expenses scandal in Ottawa and the epic trials and tribulations engulfing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the conservative brand in Ontario is corroding before voters' eyes. Tim Hudak – Ontario PC leader since June 2009 – can't seem to gain traction and push ahead of Wynne's Liberals.In an era characterized by an apathetic and cynical electorate, many voters do not differentiate between Mr. Harper's party and that of Mr. Hudak's at Queen's Park. Add to that Hudak's close relationship with the Ford brothers and his announcement last year that Doug Ford would run as a 'star' candidate in Etobicoke-North, and you can hardly blame voters for painting this cast of characters with the same brush.Meanwhile, the NDP's Andrea Horwath appears badly bruised after Wynne's Liberals out-maneuvered her party in last month's prolonged budget negotiations. As a female leader with social activist routes, Wynne is out-flanking Horwath in ideological territory that was once comfortably Horwath's.As the age-old adage goes: timing is everything in politics. With Liberal fortunes on the rise nation-wide and Tory fortunes cratering, Wynne appears to have the momentum as she enters four critical by-elections expected to be called later this summer.These imminent by-elections in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Ottawa South, London West, and Windsor-Tecumseh – four ridings in different regions of the province – will amount to a mini-election and resulting progress report on Wynne's leadership prior to next year's expected general election.In the meantime, the premier is embarking on an ambitious tour of the province, visiting every community imaginable to sing the praises of a budget deal she brokered less than two months ago.The mission: to introduce herself to the Ontario people and to cement her new government's brand.Wynne is also the beneficiary of fortuitous timing in another respect: her rise to the highest office in Ontario coincides with the surge of baby boomer women now leading five Canadian provinces, representing over 80 per cent of the country's population.A mere decade ago, this would have been deemed inconceivable. And yet today, women – Quebec's Pauline Marois, Ontario's Kathleen Wynne, Alberta's Allison Redford, and British Columbia's Christy Clark – run the country's largest four provinces.In the case of Redford and Clark, both succeeded unpopular premiers from their own parties – like Wynne – and were written off as unlikely to win their own mandates.Redford was to be defeated by the upstart Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith in April 2012, and Clark's BC Liberal Party was to be reduced to electoral oblivion at the hands of the NDP's Adrian Dix in May 2013.But both women stunned the pundits and pollsters, running textbook campaigns, each earning commanding majority governments on election night.What were the keys to the astonishing Redford and Clark victories?Both women were shrewdly able to distance themselves from their less than popular predecessors, presenting themselves as 'change agents', while recalibrating their party's images to align with their personal brand.In Redford's case, this meant clearly positioning herself as a social moderate able to govern on behalf of all Albertans, in sharp contrast to the right-wing (and untested) Danielle Smith.In Clark's case, it was as a strong economic manager running on the campaign slogan: “strong economy, secure tomorrow.” This message resonated, particularly in light of an NDP campaign intent on opposing key economic development initiatives absent a credible fiscal plan.These victories serve as a blueprint for Kathleen Wynne.But the Ontario premier only need look at her own province's political history for further precedents. As political historians will note, the Progressive Conservatives ruled Ontario for 42 consecutive years from 1943-1985.Throughout their dynasty, the Tories straddled the political centre, relegating the Liberal Party to a rural conservative rump in southwestern Ontario. But beyond ruling as Red Tory centrists, the PCs were able to effectively rejuvenate their party each decade with a new leader.The strategy worked so much so that the PCs remained in office for four decades under the leadership of six Tory premiers. It was this legacy of continuity and change that led the party to popularly be referred to as the 'Big Blue Machine' of Ontario politics.Ontario's Liberals would be wise to replicate this legacy and relegate today's Tories to a rural rump, much like the Ontario Liberal Party was forty years ago.There is no doubt that considerable challenges await Ontario's Liberal minority government as it approaches its third year next fall.Fortunately for provincial Liberals, their new leader may well be their foremost asset, for the more Ontarians see of Kathleen Wynne, the more they will endorse her refreshing style.Andrew Perez, BJ, MPP, is a Toronto-based writer and political activist. Andrew has considerable experience working in public policy and politics, having worked as a Parliamentary Intern in Ottawa where he worked for both a government and an opposition Member of Parliament. He has also worked for the Liberal Party of Canada, and completed internships at Queen's Park and on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Most recently, he worked as an advisor on the Sandra Pupatello leadership campaign in Ontario, briefing the candidate and senior campaign team on issues management. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University, and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto.