How Kathleen Wynne became one of Ontario’s most cynical politicians

OPINION: The Liberal leader’s new stance on labour means that if she loses on June 7, she’ll lose having abandoned some of her core principles, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 1, 2018
Kathleen Wynne speaking in front of Queen's Park
Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne is pillorying NDP leader Andrea Horwath for holding the same position on labour that she herself held until at least 2013. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Nobody leaves the premier’s office as an angel. But even by the jaundiced standard of “Ontario premiers desperately trying to avoid election defeats,” the last week has been a pretty brazen example of hypocrisy and mendacity from the Ontario Liberals — one that has permanently eroded Kathleen Wynne’s pretenses to be a different kind of Liberal.

She will, instead, face electoral oblivion with the public knowing that she’s just as willing as her predecessors were to do anything and say anything to hang on to political power.

Wynne kicked things off last week with the televised leaders’ debate, during which she referred to a longstanding NDP position — that unions shouldn’t be legislated back to work from Queen’s Park — and all but alleged that a Premier Andrea Horwath would let people wait endlessly in untended hospital hallways while nurses strike. (People are already waiting days in hospital hallways as it is under the Liberals, so it’s not obvious how Horwath would make things worse.)

But that was just the beginning. The Liberals followed Wynne’s debate-night attacks with days of follow-up attacks on the NDP for its connection with unions. Those attacks now form the core of the Liberal attempt to hold on to relevance as the election enters its final phase — and they seem to be all the party has left.

To state the obvious: if you’re skeptical of unions, you probably won’t prefer a New Democrat government. Shocking, I know. But to see the Liberals, and Wynne in particular, turn so hard against organized labour as they stare into the abyss requires that somebody correct the record with some history.

During the 2003 election campaign, the Liberals promised they would build a more harmonious relationship with the province’s public sector-unions. They made hard policy promises — caps on class sizes, for example — to teachers’ unions. The Tory government of Ernie Eves said that the Liberal promises would be ruinously expensive, but the Liberals won in part by credibly promising that by building a more respectful relationship, they’d avoid the strikes that marred the Harris and Eves years.

And they did, more or less. Between class-size caps and the later implementation of full-day kindergarten — and a just-say-yes-to-everything attitude to teachers in the first two McGuinty governments — the Liberals kept labour peace. They also massively expanded education spending in the process, for both good and ill: schools were rebuilt and classes shrank (a little). But their largesse would eventually catch up with them.

The love-in between McGuinty and the teachers’ unions broke down when the economy did: the Liberals couldn’t keep writing cheques with other people’s money after the 2008 recession. It took a while for things to finally explode, but they did after the Liberals passed Bill 115 in 2012, stripping teachers of the right to strike (the law was later ruled unconstitutional).

But when Kathleen Wynne took over in 2013, she told all and sundry that she was different. The province’s teachers’ unions could rest assured that their rights weren’t going to be traded away by tacticians in the premier’s office, she said. She worked assiduously to repair the Liberal party’s relationship with teachers, saying that Bill 115 was a mistake she wouldn’t repeat and wouldn’t have made in the first place if she’d been premier then.

In short: Wynne in 2018 is warning voters that if the NDP is elected, it might do exactly what the Liberals did for nearly a decade. And she’s pillorying Horwath for holding the position she herself did until at least 2013, the same position McGuinty ran and won on in 2003 — that strikes can be avoided if the government treats unions with respect.

Horwath might be wrong on labour rights. That would be a fair criticism from Doug Ford or even from bluer Liberals, such as former finance minister Dwight Duncan. Coming from Wynne, though, it’s staggeringly dishonest.  

And if the Liberals somehow win this election, they’ll face another meltdown in the next mandate. Teachers’ union contracts start expiring next year: Does anyone think that that round of bargaining would go well after all this? We don’t need to guess: after what one called a “systematic attack” on unions, the few teachers' unions that initially gave the Liberals their endorsements have now started pulling them.

Politics is a contact sport, and political parties have the right to contest the election as best they can. But that doesn’t give them carte blanche to do and say anything to win, and it shouldn’t spare them from the judgment of voters.

Wynne is going to face that judgment soon, and she’s poised to lead her party from government to annihilation. It’s unclear whether the Liberals will ever be able to dig themselves out of the ditch she’s steered them into. But she could at least have faced defeat with her reputation intact.

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