Face facts, Ontario: It’s Kathleen Wynne to the finish line

By Steve Paikin - Published on August 22, 2017
Woman speaks in front of seated audience as they applaud.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne addresses Liberal MPPs on Aug. 17, 2017. (Ontario Liberal Caucus)

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Last Wednesday, the premier’s office e-blasted out Kathleen Wynne’s daily schedule, as it does every day — but there was a curious entry this time.

Wynne would address her caucus in the middle of the summer and allow the media to broadcast this presumably special announcement to the masses.

Maybe it’s a genetic flaw in journalists, but I know what raced through my mind: the last time I could recall the premier’s office inviting the press to a caucus meeting, it was so Dalton McGuinty could announce he was stepping down. Apparently I wasn’t the only one whose mind went there, because Twitter exploded with rumours that Wynne was planning to exit stage left.

I emailed a source, who assured me nothing of the sort was in the cards. I was patiently told, probably for the eighth time over the past year, that Wynne was going nowhere, and that she would lead the Liberals into next June’s election.

And of course, the Twitterverse was all wrong. Wynne was not announcing her departure. In fact, she was attempting a sort of reboot of her government’s message, saying she wanted, over the next 10 months, to focus on making the province “fairer” and provide better opportunities to those Ontarians the economic recovery had left behind.

It was part pep rally, part reminder of the specific policies the Liberals had advanced in previous months (a balanced budget, pharmacare for kids, free post-secondary tuition for eligible low-income students) that Wynne wanted her troops to get out there and promote.

When the polls repeatedly suggest the premier is the least popular in the entire country, it’s understandable that Queen’s Park observers would look for a more intriguing narrative than “Wynne isn’t going anywhere and will lead the Liberals into the next election because the party believes she is the best person for the job” — as numerous sources have repeated over the past many months.

So many people who follow Queen’s Park (journalists, politicians, lobbyists, special interest groups) were adamant that there were two possible options for Wynne: either she was going to call a snap election to get out in front of two separate September court cases alleging Liberal malfeasance (one of which she’s agreed to testify in), or she was going to announce her retirement from politics and let a new leader try to rebrand the party.

But we are all now going to have to get our heads around the notion that sometimes, politicians actually mean what they say — and in this case, the premier and her advisers have been consistent and categorical in stating there will be no snap election and no early departure.

Yes, the Liberals are trailing the Progressive Conservatives in the polls and have been for a long time. But they are still within spitting distance of the Tories and remain competitive with Ontario’s other centre-left option, the NDP. It’s not as if the Grits are polling miles behind the other major parties.

Also, given Wynne’s hyper-competitive instincts, I believe she thinks she can beat Patrick Brown and Andrea Horwath. After all, Brown is a 39-year-old rookie embroiled in intra-party allegations about crooked nomination meetings (one of which is the subject of a police investigation) and something of a mutiny by social conservatives and disaffected Tories. And then there’s Horwath, whom Wynne already bested in 2014.

So perhaps instead of wondering why Wynne might choose to stay, we should ask why wouldn’t she want to stay, given her confidence in her campaigning skills and her belief in what the Liberals have done.

Of course, it’s also true that Liberals are hardly tripping over themselves to fight for nominations for the 2018 election the way Tories are. Brown is correct that some of the shenanigans surrounding PC nomination battles stem from the fact that lots of people think the Tories are going to win, making a party nomination worth something. You don’t fight like heck to win a Liberal nomination if you think the party is about to go down in flames. Look no further than the daughter of a former prime minister, Caroline Mulroney, who has chosen the Ontario PC Party and this next election to make her entry into public life.

Where are the prominent Liberals taking similar risks? So far, we haven’t seen any. In fact, the most influential cabinet minister of this government, deputy premier Deb Matthews, has yet to officially announce whether she will run again and hasn't scheduled her London North Centre nomination meeting. That seems a curious thing to do if you’re confident in your party’s destiny. 

Furthermore, the Liberals, unlike the Tories, are desperate for cash and having a devil of a time raising it, thanks to the party’s unpopularity and to new fundraising rules that almost everyone except the premier thinks have gone overboard.

All of which means there will be lots to talk about when Wynne joins us the day after Labour Day as the first guest on the first program of this, our 12th season of The Agenda on TVO.

I have a pretty good idea of what I’d like to ask the premier during our interview. But if you’ve got any ideas, I’m all ears. Send your suggested questions to AgendaConnect@tvo.org and I’ll happily consider what’s been sent in.

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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