How Kathleen Wynne is adjusting to life as a workaday MPP

ANALYSIS: A year after her crushing defeat, the former premier talks to TVO.org about heckling in the house, the future of the Liberal party, and why she’s not going anywhere
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 5, 2019
Kathleen Wynne in the Ontario legislature
Kathleen Wynne, MPP for Don Valley West, became education minister in 2006 and remained in positions of power until 2018. (Chris Young/CP))

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Sometimes legislation takes forever to make its way through the house, and sometimes it doesn’t: Bill PR10, which amends the United Church of Canada Act, was introduced for first reading on May 28 and was poised to pass third reading just seven days later. Within 10 minutes on Tuesday, and without any comments or questions from MPPs, the bill was carried by the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills and sent back to the House for third reading. It’s expected to be passed by the legislature before MPPs leave for the summer, at the end of this week.

The bill makes some changes to United Church governance, bringing it in line with changes made at the federal level earlier this year. The bill would be entirely uncontroversial and unremarkable if it weren’t for the identity of its sponsor: Kathleen Wynne, the MPP for Don Valley West and Doug Ford’s immediate predecessor as premier of Ontario.

“I’m doing my job,” Wynne says in her office at Queen’s Park. “It hasn’t been easy, but I was elected by the people of Don Valley West.”

A year after she and her party faced a staggering election defeat, the former premier of Ontario is still at Queen’s Park, doing the day-to-day work of being an MPP — which includes unheralded efforts with private bills. (As we’ve noted before, private bills are different from private members’ bills.) Wynne is a lifelong member of the United Church; her family’s connections with it go back to its founding in 1925, and she has worked on the executive committee of her church. It’s fortunate, then, that she’s also an MPP and therefore in a position to propose a bill that the church needs passed.

Still, Wynne has plenty of reasons not to come to Queen’s Park — at least 72 of them. That’s how many Progressive Conservatives there are sitting in the government benches. And many of them seem to delight in shouting her down.

When she rose to speak during question period on May 14, the heckling from the Tories was so severe that Speaker Ted Arnott issued a reprimand. Like them, he was elected as a PC MPP, but he has laboured mightily in the last year to run the house fairly.

“The member for Don Valley West is an elected member of this house and has every right to ask a question just like any other member of this house. I need to be able to hear her,” Arnott said. “It’s not acceptable behaviour.”

“As for what happens in the legislature,” Wynne says, “that says more about the government members than it does about me. I notice the last question I asked, they were quiet, so I think they’ve been told they have to simmer down.”

(Some PC representatives have been gracious: on Tuesday, as Queen’s Park marked the beginning of Pride Month, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod referred to Wynne as a “true trailblazer” and “an inspiration to us all.”)

If PR10 passes, it will be the first bill Wynne has moved through the house without being a minister of the Crown. Wynne rose to cabinet so rapidly — elected in 2003, she was education minister by 2006 and stayed in positions of power until 2018 — that she introduced only one private member’s bill to the house before becoming a minister. (That was 2004’s Bill 120, the City of Toronto Amendment Act, introduced in response to Mike Harris’s earlier move to reduce the number of Toronto councillors. Her bill, which restored council’s power to have as many members as it wanted, did not pass but later became part of a broader government bill, the 2006 City of Toronto Act. The city then saw that power stripped from it again when the Tories forcibly shrank council in 2018.)

I ask her whether she had had to relearn what it was like to be a private member.

“I don’t think I ever forgot, you know,” Wynne says. “I’ve actually always considered myself lucky. When you come into government, everyone wants to be in cabinet, but I was quite happy … it was a really good experience those three years.”

Wynne’s obligations don’t relate just to Don Valley West, of course. The Liberal party that she led until last summer is still trying to find its way, and while she’s no longer formally in a leadership role, Wynne is one of the only people around who can help guide it out of the wilderness.

“She’s an integral part of our caucus, and she cares deeply about her constituents,” says interim Liberal leader John Fraser. “It takes a lot of courage to be in the legislature when you’ve got a government that’s hell-bent on undoing everything — everything — without a plan for what comes next. She’s got a lot of courage, more courage than I’ve seen in almost any of the politicians that I know.”

Wynne is well aware of the challenges facing her party. “We can’t pretend,” she says. “There are very few Liberal members” — and their number is likely to shrink, at least for a time, as Ottawa MPPs Marie-France Lalonde and Nathalie Des Rosiers announced last month that they’ll be leaving Queen’s Park later this year. The Liberals would normally be heavily favoured to win both byelections, but these aren’t normal times for the Liberals. For her part, Wynne intends to serve the full four-year term she was elected to.

“I want to be part of winning a byelection and rebuilding the party. I think it’s important that I’m here.”

At its annual general meeting, being held this weekend in Mississauga, the Ontario Liberal Party will decide the rules for its leadership race — which, Liberals hope, will help chart a new course for the much-diminished party. And Kathleen Wynne will be there.

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