When it comes to provincial politics, the one question that preoccupies my thinking these days is this: is the Liberal government merely in a typical mid-term popularity trough from which it can rebound, or has the public already made up its mind that this government needs defeating?
I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they definitively know the answer to that question today. They may predict that Kathleen Wynne’s government is toast, and they may be right. But they can’t know it for certain, with the next election still 19 months away.
I find the question particularly hard to answer because history is replete with examples of governments that felt past their “best before" dates and yet lived on to fight and win another day.
For example, in doing research for my new book on former premier Bill Davis, I was surprised to read how many media commentators back in the early 1970s were prepared to go on record saying Davis had no chance to be re-elected. Davis, as education minister, had inherited a majority government from John Robarts, then increased its size in the 1971 election. But the Tories had already been in power for nearly three decades, and midway through Davis’ first term his approval ratings went through the floor, as annoying scandal after scandal chipped away at his brand. It got so bad that, in 1973, star candidate Roy McMurtry lost a byelection to the Liberals in a downtown Toronto riding that had been Tory blue for 30 years.
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Sound all too familiar?
It should. Wynne, also a former education minister, inherited her premiership from Dalton McGuinty in 2013 and like Davis, won her own majority government the first time she led the Liberals to the polls in 2014. Like Davis, her party also lost a byelection (Scarborough-Rouge River) in a part of Toronto that had been reliably Liberal for three decades. And here she is, midway through her first mandate, with scandals also threatening to make her a one-term premier.
In Davis’s case, he and his campaign team, known as the Big Blue Machine, figured out how to restore his popularity enough to win a minority government, when they went back to the polls in 1975. It was an astonishing victory because just a week before election day, the Progressive Conservatives still trailed badly in opinion surveys. And all those pundits who insisted Davis was about to lose had to eat crow.
Could history’s trajectory deliver the same outcome for Wynne? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Many of today’s pundits have assured me Wynne’s government can’t come back, that the scandals are too many, that the Liberals have been in power too long and that Ontarians will want to hedge their bets, as they so often do. (That last one’s a reference to the fact that for most of the past century, when the Tories are in power in Ottawa the Liberals reign at Queen’s Park, and vice-versa. Now that Stephen Harper is gone and Justin Trudeau is in, will voters feel that need to favor the PCs at the provincial level?)
Of course, yesterday’s news was about as unwelcome as it gets: the CEO of the Liberal Party, Patricia Sorbara, has resigned her post in hopes of clearing her name in connection with bribery charges brought against her related to the Sudbury byelection. This could hardly come at a worse time for the Liberals. They are less than three weeks away from another one of those byelections that could mean nothing … or everything. Ottawa-Vanier has been a fail-safe riding in eastern Ontario for the Grits. They’ve held that seat (and its predecessor, Ottawa East) non-stop for 45 years. But with the government on its heels and the Progressive Conservatives running the high-profile former ombudsman André Marin, this riding (like Scarborough-Rouge River before it) could deliver another upset win for the Tories.
What would that mean for Wynne? Astonishingly, I’ve recently heard from two former provincial Liberal cabinet ministers who served during the McGuinty years, and insist if the Liberals lose Ottawa-Vanier, the premier must resign for the good of the party.
The argument goes like this: just as Dalton McGuinty took the gas plants, eHealth, ORNGE, scrubbed computer hard drives and other scandals “unto himself” as he left office — giving Wynne a fighting chance to win the 2014 election — party loyalists would expect Wynne to do the same thing. They believe if she left, much of the baggage accumulated on her watch would leave with her, giving her successor a fighting chance to rebrand the party before the June 2018 election. (Think: the OPP charges related to the Sudbury byelection, the “social justice warrior” issues that animate her but not so much the average Ontarian, high electricity prices and other irritants).
Let’s also acknowledge that some of these ex-McGuintyites may have less interest in defending Wynne because the rupture between Team McGuinty and Team Wynne has been profound. Many of the former McGuinty MPPs say they’ve been shut out of Wynne's communication loop, and that she only reaches out to them when the government needs fundraisers organized. So some of the willingness to cut Wynne loose can be attributed to this group having its collective nose out of joint. But not all of it.
Ironically, the PCs now find themselves hoping that Wynne will stay, speculating that their chances of winning that next election are better with a leader mired in controversy rather than a new chief who could potentially change the channel and rebrand the Liberals yet again.
No Liberal will publicly acknowledge that these kinds of conversations are happening. But they are, just as they did in the 1970s when many nervous Tories wondered whether the party made a mistake in choosing Davis over his prime challenger, Allan Lawrence.
Clearly, all those decades ago, the Tories made the right decision by sticking with Davis, who would go on to win three more elections and run Ontario for a total of 14 years.
But that was then. Politics today takes place in a hothouse of 24/7 media coverage and social media saturation. Suddenly, a single four-year term feels like eight because the impact of everything is magnified. Think about it: Wynne has been in office for three years and 265 days — not long in the grand scheme of things. But of Ontario’s 25 premiers since 1867, she’s already the 16th longest-serving. And they have been intense, consequential years.
But Wynne has every intention of contesting the next general election, and her team thinks she still represents the best chance to keep the Liberals in office and continue this 21st century Grit dynasty. I'll look at that more closely very soon.