This is the story of an Ontario politician, who grew up in one of those quiet, leafy suburbs north of Toronto, and who came to prominence by being one of the most noteworthy ministers of education in the province’s history. In fact, this politician’s tenure was so noteworthy, the MPP rode that wave of success right into the premier’s office.
This cabinet minister inherited a troubled situation from the previous premier, but made some significant changes in the early days, convincing enough the electorate a tired party was worth a second look.
But before long, the new premier got into trouble. A constant stream of scandals chipped away at the new leader’s brand. No one doubted the premier was a good person whose heart was in the right place. But issue after issue, things just seemed to go south. The new premier’s poll numbers started sinking like a stone, so much so that when a by-election took place in what had been a safe Toronto riding for three decades, the premier’s party actually lost the seat to the official opposition in a huge upset.
Suddenly, party members were second guessing themselves. “Maybe we did pick the wrong leader at that convention a few years ago,” they started saying to one another.
This is the Kathleen O’Day Wynne story, more than three and a half years into her premiership, right? Well, yes it is. But it’s also exactly the same story of another premier: William Grenville Davis.
We know how the Bill Davis story turned out. Somehow, in the depths of his unpopularity, he managed to find a way to hang on to the reins and win a minority government. But he negotiated those politically tricky waters for six straight years, eventually becoming popular again and returning to majority rule. He’d go on to become the second-longest serving premier in Ontario history.
Can Wynne pull off the same feat? With 18 months to go before facing her second election as premier, is there a way back for her? And if there is, what might be required to get Ontarians to take a second look at Canada’s least-popular premier?
In December I wrote a column asking why Wynne’s polling numbers were so low. I got a terrific amount of feedback. Some of the responses were predictable: she was suffering the consequences of rising electricity prices, or there was a sense that the Liberals, at 13 years, had been in power for too long. Some complained that Wynne was a reckless spender (even though the government remains confident the budget will be brought back into balance next year, for the first time in nearly a decade), and others still weren’t comfortable with the partial privatization of Hydro One, which Wynne green lit to pay for infrastructure and pay down some of the province’s more than $300-billion debt.
But we got some other kinds of feedback, as well. “In brief, nobody wants to be governed by a schoolmarm that has no clue about how business and the economy actually work and instead never met a homeless person she didn’t want to save,” said one senior manager in the resource sector. The same observer added: “She nevertheless runs a powerful election machine and I wouldn’t underestimate her.”
Despite the similarities between Wynne and Davis, one thing Davis did do differently was give his ministers more of a say on the files under their purview. The great advantage of that approach was that if there was too much public push back on an issue, Davis could always ride in on his white horse at the 11th hour and shuffle the minister out of the portfolio, thereby rebooting the matter, or simply giving them orders to dial things back. He thereby came across as a wise leader whose judgment would protect Ontarians if his government ever got too ambitious.
Wynne has not taken that approach and as a result, far too many Ontarians think she’s far too interventionist. For example, she has been front and centre on the $160-billion, 12-year infrastructure plan (meaning she also wears the cost overruns, the delays, and the less popular light-rail transit lines in Hamilton and Brampton which may never be built). She has also taken centre stage on her government’s cap-and-trade plan, which went into effect this week and which too many citizens see as a naked, nearly $2 billion tax grab, rather than a contribution to tackling climate change. Same with the partial privatization of Hydro One, which has revealed that many Ontarians like their public institutions left the way they are: namely, in public hands.
Had Wynne not been so singularly associated with these issues, she would have retained the option of scaling them back, rendering them less divisive and potentially less unpopular.
But she made other choices. Times have also changed since Bill Davis, who never had to worry about 24/7 news coverage, social media run amok, and a kind of unhinged hatred of political leaders we see more and more of nowadays that feels unprecedented.
So Wynne’s big decisions now have to focus on what she’s able to do over the next 18 months to become more competitive politically with the Tories, who have had a commanding lead in the polls for months now (although some observers have suggested he not take that huge lead to the bank just yet).
Governments often do the nasty stuff early in their terms, suffer the consequences in popularity, then hope to lower the public's temperature and communicate the benefits of their decisions before the ensuing election; Wynne clearly hopes to follow that playbook.
But what if the Liberal brand is so damaged, she needs to do more? Another reader, not a Liberal but a former MPP and business executive who respects Wynne’s political smarts, suggested the following, much bolder prescription, focusing laser-like on the economy:
- Yes, a cut in the land transfer tax for first time homebuyers gets implemented this week, but this observer’s view was, it’s not a dramatic enough cut — a maximum of $4,000 — to make a difference economically or politically. He suggests cutting the tax by half to spur on even more housing development across the province.
- Delay implementing the cap and trade scheme until unemployment drops to 5 per cent. The latest from Statistics Canada suggests Ontario’s jobless rate is at 6.3 per cent, so we’re not far off. It’s also possible too many Ontarians think the cap and trade tax increases will render business less competitive and harm job creation prospects.
- Delay balancing the budget by another couple of years and subsidize electricity prices. True, the 8 per cent provincial portion of the HST came off hydro bills this week, but this emailer thought that wouldn’t be enough to get people’s attention. And given that the government has already cancelled the “Clean Energy Benefit” cutting electricity prices by 10 per cent, the net effect is actually a 2 per cent increase.
- Get the premier to focus on economic development, job creation, and pocketbook issues, not social justice issues such as legislation protecting rights for transgender people.
On that last point, I have heard even many Liberals express fears that Wynne’s deep-seated concern for social justice issues may very well be genuine, but has the unwanted consequence of alienating many voters who feel scapegoated for social inequities. We just saw south of the border what can happen when, as CNN commentator Van Jones described it, white voters can stage a “whitelash.”
To be clear, I’m not advocating that Wynne follow any of this advice. One thing I learned having just written a nearly 600-page book about Bill Davis is that the media observers at Queen’s Park four decades ago wrote with a complete lack of humility and accountability. Their predictions and prescriptions for Davis were almost uniformly wrong, and yet they continued to do both with no apparent awareness of their shortcomings or interest in the consequences of their mistakes. They thought their proximity to decision-makers and superior knowledge of issues made them smarter than the general public at divining the future.
It didn’t. It made them arrogant and they constantly got egg all over their faces. Wynne has been premier for nearly four years. At this point in Davis’s career, virtually all members of the press gallery were predicting he was a spent force. They urged him to quit and give someone else a chance to repair Tory fortunes. Davis disregarded their advice and somehow managed to serve another 10 years as premier.
I’m not predicting that will happen to Wynne. I don’t make predictions. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that the cocky forecasters who think they know 18 months ahead of time how any story will end ought to take a giant dose of humility.
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