Kathleen Wynne’s town halls are getting nasty. Can’t her audiences do better?

By Steve Paikin - Published on January 23, 2018
Kathleen Wynne in Ottawa
Will Hickie, a member of the public, interrupts Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne as she speaks during a town hall meeting in Ottawa on Jan. 18, 2018 (Justin Tang/CP)

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​Let’s acknowledge this right off the top: it’s a brave politician who subjects herself to a no-holds-barred town hall and doesn’t try to “fix” the event — even when polls show she’s the most unpopular premier in the country.

Kathleen Wynne held her third town hall last Thursday night at Ottawa’s Ben Franklin Place. It quickly became apparent that those called upon to ask questions hadn’t been planted or screened beforehand, because many of them were critical of the Wynne government’s decisions.

This was a raucous event, replete with heckling, boorish behaviour, and outlandish claims — a far cry from the stacked, invitation-only, RCMP-cleared audiences that used to attend some of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s campaign events.

The moderator (Algonquin College president and CEO Cheryl Jensen) began the program by urging the audience to be civil. And yet, only a few minutes into the proceedings, it became clear that some people had ignored her words: several rose to their feet and started screaming at the premier, despite not having been given a microphone.

Those interruptions are problematic not only because they deny the person who actually has the floor the chance to be heard, but also because they put the premier in an awkward position: either she ignores the heckler and looks as if she’s avoiding tough questions, or she gives him (and it was always a “him”) the attention he craves, thereby rewarding bad behaviour.

Wynne almost always chose the latter option, which made for some dramatic moments. One heckler criticized the government’s new minimum-wage policy, saying his wife had been laid off because her employer couldn’t afford her increased salary. But what started as a reasonable criticism eventually devolved into a screed against socialism and a prediction that the Ontario Liberals would soon be ushering in Soviet-style gulags. Most of the crowd did not find that persuasive and shouted down the speaker.

This happened several times: the fact is, when civil people see anyone being unfairly attacked, rather than join in the pile-on, they tend to sympathize with that person. And so if the plan by the usurpers was to make Wynne sweat, it had the opposite effect. The crowd moved to defend the premier with chants of “sit down!” — which may, in fact, be part of the point of these town-hall exercises.

There were other bits of appalling behaviour as well. When one man began to ask a question in French, another shouted out: “English!” The premier tried to appease the heckler by assuring him she would answer the question in French and English, it angered me (and many others in the room) that asking a question in our nation’s capital in one of Canada’s two official languages should still be so problematic.

It’s also worth pointing out that there were also real moments of poignancy during the event.

“My name is Jane,” one young woman, a former teacher, said to the premier. “I have a rare disease. I have two to five years to live and I don't have $100,000 a year for the drugs I need. What will the Ontario government do to keep people like me with rare diseases alive?”

There was a hush in the room. If nothing else, this premier has demonstrated her ability to empathize with those she feels have gotten a raw deal in life. (For example, Wynne often prefaces her answers to questions about elder abuse or inadequate services for seniors with sentences such as, “My parents are 91 and 89, so I know how vulnerable people are in the late stages of life.”)

But her answer to Jane missed the mark: Wynne pointed out that the government had just created OHIP+, a free prescription drug plan for those under 25 that covers more than 4,000 eligible medications.

Even if Jane were under 25, the new program isn’t any help to her: it doesn’t cover the medication she needs. Wynne acknowledged that Jane’s situation wouldn’t change under OHIP+; she seemed to hold up the program merely as a sign that the government took the issue of drug coverage seriously. But the Tories have already pointed out that they would’ve preferred to see the $450 million OHIP+ will cost spent on improving the situation for people with rare diseases. Instead, Wynne’s government chose to spend it on under-25s — most of whom are already covered by their parents’ workplace drug plans.

Let’s come full circle here and give the premier kudos for being prepared to put herself in such a risky position. After all, even 10 embarrassing seconds of an hour-long Q&A could make their way into one of the other parties’ attack ads during the upcoming election campaign. Still, it’s worth remembering that the premier, not the moderator, chooses the questioners. Follow-ups aren’t permitted (although most of the aggressive questioners ignored that rule). And the whole thing lasted only an hour, meaning the premier could (and often did) give protracted answers to easy questions in order to kill the clock. The moderator, meawhile, rarely jumped in to silence hecklers or to urge the premier to wrap up her longish answers so more questioners could be heard. The audience’s frustration with that was apparent.

Yet for all their shortcomings, these town halls do give Ontarians direct access to the province’s top decision-maker, free of charge. And they give Wynne a chance to show off her vast knowledge of the many and varied files her government is tackling.

The premier even seemed prepared to stay after the program was over to have further conversations and take pictures with attendees. Alas, her handlers rushed her off the floor when an obnoxious heckler started charging toward her, screaming something. His idiocy ruined what might’ve been a good opportunity for dozens of others of attendees to be heard. Still, several cabinet ministers, also in attendance, stayed to have follow-up conversations with the crowd.

The premier’s next town hall is January 31 at the Italian Cultural Centre in Thunder Bay. Wouldn’t it be great if the questions were tough but civil? Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we in Ontario could show our friends in the United States what a respectful leader, held accountable by a civil populace, looks like?

Come on, northwestern Ontario. Make us proud.

Full disclosure: my wife is a volunteer for the Ontario PC Party. She co-chaired the health care policy development process, some of whose planks are in the PC platform.

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