Anyone for a snap Ontario election?

By Steve Paikin - Published on June 5, 2017
Kathleen Wynne giving a victory speech on the night of the 2014 Ontario election
The election is scheduled to take place this time next year, but there are some reasons the Liberals might want to hold it sooner — and possibly much sooner. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Let me state this right at the outset: I have no source inside the Ontario government or Liberal Party who is suggesting Premier Kathleen Wynne is about to call a snap election. Not a one.

However…

While I recently wrote about one scenario — the prospect that this was Wynne’s last chance listen to those in her party who think they need fresh leadership, and step aside before the election scheduled for June 7, 2018 — I should also put out a completely different one for your consideration.

Those voices calling for her departure are real, but so are some developments that make me wonder whether a snap election may be coming, instead.

Consider the following:

Something odd also happened last Thursday at Queen’s Park. The speaker of the legislature, Dave Levac, bid a teary goodbye to his fellow MPPs as he adjourned the house for the summer. Why would the speaker have been so emotional about saying goodbye when he’s pledged to serve out the remainder of his term, which is scheduled to run until next spring? Why the tears when the legislative calendar suggests all the MPPs are supposed to be coming back in September? 

The suspicious side of me concludes there’s no reason for Levac to have been so emotional, unless he already knew that he wasn’t returning in the fall, and that after nearly 20 years at Queen’s Park, he’d just uttered his last words as an MPP in that chamber.

Why would the Liberals call an election a full year before they have to? In Ontario, we have a fixed election-date law, which obligates the government to go to the polls no later than June 7, 2018. In fact, it was the Liberals (under Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty) who passed that law in the first place.

But there’s nothing in that law that prevents the government from calling an election early.

Strategically, there are some awfully good reasons for the Liberals to jump the gun and go now, rather than wait for next June. First and foremost, the Tories are woefully light on policy, having decided to keep their powder dry until their policy convention in November. What would the Progressive Conservative party run on in the event of a snap election call?

Second — and I don’t  want to exaggerate this, but it’s worth noting — recent polls have suggested that both Wynne’s personal approval ratings and her party's popularity are on an upswing, no doubt in part because of the flood of good news announcements the electorate has been bombarded with over the past few months.  

Let’s also not forget that the government’s plan to reduce electricity rates by 25 per cent kicked in on June 1. If it’s a hot summer, and people notice their hydro bills actually going down, that might prompt Mr. and Ms. Everyday Ontario to reconsider where they had intended to mark their ballot.

There are many things we’ve learned about Wynne during the four years and 116 days that she’s been premier, and one is that she is competitive enough to rival a riverboat gambler. While she came into office projecting values of empathy and niceness, she has shown that on occasion and when required, she can be cunning, and even ruthless. Cunning? How about the circumstances which saw federal NDP MP Glenn Thibeault jump ship to Wynne’s Liberals? Ruthless? How about sending out unmistakable signals to veteran ministers that their days were numbered, and they’d better walk the plank voluntarily lest they be fired, to make way for a younger cabinet?

Of course, an early election call could blow up in the government’s face. If the public is truly desperate to get rid of the Liberals after 14 years in power, there’s nothing like serving up that opportunity on a silver platter to accelerate defeat. But if enough of the electorate is still open to persuasion, an early call would provide that opportunity, too. 

There’s another advantage in calling a snap election: Criminal charges related to the scrubbing of computer hard drives in the former premier’s office are expected to make their way through the court system in September. The daily coverage of those proceedings will presumably only serve to further tarnish the Liberal brand, even if most of the alleged malfeasance didn’t happen on Wynne’s watch. Getting voters to the polls early would force them to make a choice before that orgy of negative coverage kicks in.

There’s also a sense around Queen’s Park that the opposition parties are licking their chops at the prospect of hammering the government for another 52 straight weeks, until the scheduled decision day next June. By calling an election sooner, Wynne can seize control of the political agenda, and be seen as bold, daring, and undaunted by running from behind.  She’s also supremely confident in her ability to out-campaign both other party leaders: The PCs’ Patrick Brown has never led a party through a province-wide campaign, and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath has already led her party to two third-place finishes.

Question Period allows the opposition to set the agenda and constantly put the government on the defensive; an election campaign puts everyone on an equal footing, in a contest this premier has already won once. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney used to say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”  There’s nothing like an election campaign to force people to do just that.

Less than a week ago, during a news conference announcing one of those good news policies (the minimum wage hike), the premier was asked by the CBC’s Mike Crawley whether she was committed to “sticking to the fixed election date of June 7 next year.”

The premier’s response: Laughter, then “Yes.”

Who wants to bet that “yes” turns into a “no” in the not-too-distant future?

If you’re reading this in Las Vegas, you may not want to bet the farm on a snap election call. But you might want to toss a double sawbuck on it, just for fun.

Update: Since this piece was published, I've heard from Speaker Dave Levac. Levac, who has always been a straight shooter with me, said his choking up was simply a matter of being overcome in the moment, that he’s an emotional guy, and that he has not heard a single thing about a possible early election call. In fact, Levac prizes his neutrality as speaker so much that he’s instructed both the premier’s office and the party to leave him out of the loop on any future electoral discussions.

With files from John Michael McGrath. 

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