You’ve got to hand it to the Ontario Liberals. Despite their leader being at record low levels of popularity, the Grits are hardly limping along, waiting for the seemingly inevitable end of their decade-and-a-half long dynasty in next summer’s election. In fact, the provincial government has done everything in its power — and then some — to crank out what you’d think were voter-friendly policies.
And yet, last week’s byelection in Sault Ste. Marie had to be extraordinarily disheartening to the party faithful — and boost those within the party who think the Liberals will be best served by getting a new leader before hitting the campaign trail.
Admittedly, one should never read too much into a single byelection result. After all, let’s remember it was slightly more than six months ago that the Liberals easily held Ottawa-Vanier in a race where the Tories ran a former provincial ombudsman as a “star” candidate.
But all the government’s new policies, many of which focus on workers, counted for naught in labour-friendly Sault Ste. Marie. In a seat the red team captured with nearly 59 per cent of the vote in the last general election three years ago, the Liberals plummeted to just 23 per cent this time. And the Progressive Conservatives, who hadn’t won the seat since 1981, blew right past the New Democrats to capture 40 per cent of the vote, and rewarding Patrick Brown for his multiple trips to the north since becoming party leader two years ago.
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After nearly a decade of bleeding nothing but red ink (no pun intended), the government has spent the last few months unrolling aggressive policy they hoped would help them retain the support of exactly these kinds of voters.
It was able to present a balanced budget this year, just as it had promised to do when Kathleen Wynne took over as premier back in February 2013. Yes, critics can hoot and holler that it’s not a real balanced budget, since it depends on the one-time sale of publicly-owned assets and other measures the (non-partisan) provincial auditor disapproves of. But that’s fine print that may not move the average Ontarian.
There’s been so much more. Rent controls have been imposed on all apartment buildings, not just those built before 1991, as was the case previously; the minimum wage will move to $15 an hour in a year and a half (if, that is, the Liberals get reelected or their successors follow the plan they’ve laid out); there’s a new pharmacare program offering free medication for everyone under age 25, kicking in next January; we’ll spend $21 billion in coming decades to pay for a 25 per cent electricity rate cut for this generation; there’s a guaranteed annual income pilot project coming for lower-income residents in three cities; and the province’s labour laws are going to be amended providing new worker supports such as three weeks annual vacation time after five years of service with the same employer, easier conditions for unionizing, and financial penalties for last minute changes to shift times.
Add it all up and it certainly should put some wind in the Liberals’ sails, since these are the policies that ought to find favour in the province’s political centre-left and among the middle class — key demographics the party will need to win over if it’s to stand a chance at the polls.
Liberals I talk to still desperately want to believe in their leader. They think her heart is in the right place, that she is in public life for all the right reasons, and genuinely wants to solve every problem she encounters. They also know her to be a phenomenal campaigner, who created a genuine connection with party delegates in 2013 and then again with voters in 2014, as she made the case for protecting public services from PC-promised cuts. Some of the first-time MPPs who won in that election, such as Arthur Potts (who won in Beaches-East York by just one per cent), owe their seats to Wynne’s pulling the campaign out of the fire last time ‘round.
But the Soo byelection will no doubt cause many of them to lose heart. Some I talk to now wonder whether even the supremely talented Wynne can bring the party back, and whether a change in leadership might be enough of a change for an electorate that, polls suggest, has fallen out of love with the leader, but not necessarily the party or its policies.
You can bet a host of potential successors will be watching their email inboxes ultra-carefully this month, because this is truly the 11th hour for this premier if she wants to step aside. With the next election exactly 12 months away, Wynne could retire and call a convention to choose a new leader (presumably for November or December), thereby giving her successor six months or so to change Liberal fortunes. But that timetable would obligate the premier to step down this month. Any later runs the risk of not leaving adequate time for the next leader to change the channel.
We know that every time she’s asked, Wynne insists she will lead her troops into the next election. Frankly, what else would you expect her to say? It is her obligation as premier and party leader to project confidence and stability.
But the fact is, there are foot soldiers supporting the runner-up from the 2013 leadership convention, Sandra Pupatello, who are just waiting for Wynne to give the word, and they’ll be up, organized, and ready to champion the former Windsor MPP again. The same is true of several current Liberal cabinet and caucus members.
None of this should be misconstrued as advice, one way or another. History shows us there are numerous leaders, from Brian Mulroney to Bill Davis to Jean Charest, whom the experts left for dead as their first term came to an end, only to see them save the silverware with a dynamic, successful election campaign. And that could presumably happen for Wynne and the Liberals next year as well.
But the results in Sault Ste. Marie make that narrative that much tougher to believe. And so, the premier must decide: Go big? Or go home, satisfied that she moved several huge initiatives forward, and give someone else a chance to renew Liberal fortunes?