Just why is Kathleen Wynne so unpopular?

By Steve Paikin - Published on December 22, 2016
Kathleen Wynne.
Kathleen Wynne takes part in the Meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Dec. 9. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Can you imagine what it’s like to wake up every morning and know you’re the most unpopular political leader in the entire country?

Unfortunately for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, she doesn’t have to: it’s real life for her. And it was confirmed again last week, when the Angus Reid Institute once more found her in last place among Canada’s ten premiers, with just 16 per cent support

Not a day goes by that I don’t ask people why Wynne is so unpopular. Whether I’m on the subway, at an event, or in my travels around the province, it’s the one question that both fascinates and perplexes me. How did Wynne go from inheriting a political mess from her predecessor, to outshining both her rivals during the 2014 election campaign and winning close to 40 per cent of the vote, to being dismissed by so many as a lost cause two and a half years later?

Here’s an example of a typical encounter. I was in Sault Ste. Marie a couple of weeks ago and asked an Algoma University professor how she thought the premier was doing. By all rights, the answer should have been encouraging. The professor was a public sector employee — the very type of person Wynne went to bat for in the 2014 election campaign, when then-PC leader Tim Hudak promised to eliminate 100,000 broader public-sector jobs. This professor even lived in a Liberal-held riding where the MPP was popular and in cabinet (David Orazietti, who since then has announced he is leaving politics). And yet, the ensuing stream of negativity and criticism that emerged following my question was quite surprising. The professor couldn’t quite put her finger on why the honeymoon with Wynne was over — just that it surely was.

I’ve experienced that kind of encounter dozens of times over the past several months. Yes, electricity prices are high (especially in northern Ontario), but the hydro file has been problematic for every government. So why would it be especially problematic for this premier?

Yes, there’s significant antipathy to the partial privatization of Hydro One, the provincially owned electricity distribution company. But that hardly explains a 16 per cent approval rating. Even Mike Harris and Ernie Eves never saw their support go that low, and they wanted to sell off all of Hydro One, not just 60 per cent of it.

Further complicating matters: the Liberals have actually done a lot of things one would think might have been popular. Thirty years ago, it was a former Liberal premier, David Peterson, who promised to put beer and wine in corner stores. But it was Wynne who finally followed through with that promise by putting them in grocery stores just a couple of months ago.

Wynne has also shown herself to be receptive to repurposing old schools which were scheduled to be torn down — surely a crowd pleaser. Some of these schools may now be saved by being turned into community hubs — witness the well-received grand opening of one such hub just last week in the Bloor-Dufferin area of Toronto.

The Liberals are responding to the anger over electricity prices by taking the provincial portion of the HST off electricity bills. That will save consumers 8 per cent a month on their energy costs.

Syrian refugees were met at Pearson Airport by Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a photo op for the ages.

Transit is getting a shot in the arm as never before, with a $160-billion plan to build roads, bridges, subways, and light-rail lines all over the province.

And the highlight of the last budget was an offer of free tuition for university and college students from lower income families.

On top of that, the economy is doing well: unemployment is down, growth is up, and the Liberals look set to balance the province’s books, as promised, in the new year.

You’d think this combination of policy moves and economic stats would prevent the premier’s numbers from plummeting as badly as they have.

But ask around, and you hear that Wynne's original agenda has been sidetracked. Wynne initially got into politics as a school trustee, and she's passionate about issues such as education and social justice. But she has become the face of the Hydro One partial privatization and a cap-and-trade climate-change plan no Ontarian understands — other than insofar as it’ll cost more to gas up the car and heat the house.

You’d think putting in place a new political fundraising system designed to put tougher contribution limits in place and save cabinet ministers from perceived conflicts of interest would result in a bump in popularity. Instead, it just seems to have shone a light on how bad things used to be — a system Wynne defended and justified for too many years.

So is it hopeless for Wynne? It might be. But no one could possibly know that for certain today. There’s still a year and a half before the next election. The Tories’ Patrick Brown, his huge lead in the polls notwithstanding, has his own troubles with the social conservative wing of his party that threaten to prevent the breakthrough in urban Ontario that the PCs need to win. And the NDP, for all leader Andrea Horwath’s popularity, has never been able to translate that into votes at election time.

It seems one thing is clear: Wynne is definitely sticking around to see the Liberals through the next election campaign in 2018, for two reasons. First, she has an agenda she wants to see through — an agenda that includes massive infrastructure investments, nailing down the province's cap-and-trade plan, privatizing another 30 per cent of Hydro One, not to mention a social justice agenda, moving the yardsticks forward on progress for women or other disadvantaged minorities.  And second, my conversations with Liberals suggest the majority of them still believe she represents their best chance to remain in power. The Wynne they still see and work with is committed to public service, has her heart in the right place, is taking a kicking but still comes to work every day in a good mood trying to do good — even if the vast majority of the public doesn’t see her like that anymore.

She is, after all, the only rookie over the last 45 years to have won her first general election as party leader. (Bill Davis was the last one, way back in 1971).

So over the next 18 months, watch for Wynne to try to reconnect with the issues that animated her entry into politics in the first place: educational opportunities and social justice. After all, the thing that has to motivate her these days is that when you’re the least popular premier in the country, theoretically, the only direction you can go is up. 

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