The next nine months will make or break Kathleen Wynne

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 5, 2017

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The Agenda kicks off its 12th season tonight with a feature interview with Ontario’s 25th premier. And frankly, it’s hard to think of another first minister anywhere in the country who’s under more pressure than Kathleen Wynne.

Wynne still has plenty of time to change the channel on how Ontarians regard her government. There are still nine months and two days until the next general election, and if a week is a lifetime in politics — which it surely is — then the premier has about 39 lifetimes to get herself back in the game.

We talk about what it’s like to be Kathleen Wynne during our interview, what it’s like to wake up every day knowing you’re the least popular premier in the entire country, and what it’s like to know that while your party’s poll numbers aren’t disastrous by any stretch, they’re still not nearly robust enough to defeat the Tories.

Wynne took the opportunity during our interview to test-drive some new themes that I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about between now and election day, June 7, 2018. In past months, Wynne dwelled on the fact that too many people weren’t benefiting from the Ontario economy. Now, her emphasis is on an economy that is firing on all cylinders, having been managed by a government that has balanced the books. Still, the overarching theme is “fairness,” which the premier repeatedly comes back to and thus (she argues) justifies her government’s significant intervention into the economy with a dramatically increased minimum wage, “free post-secondary tuition” for students from low-income households, and covering the cost of many drugs for Ontarians 25 years of age and younger. (Never mind that the vast majority of those folks were already covered by workplace drug plans; the government still claims its pharmacare program is a historic initiative).

The Liberals have pointed out that all these policies are testing well at the polls and with focus groups, but the leader and prime champion of those policies still isn’t. Wynne is running well behind her own party in popularity. She has had numerous opportunities (and probably non-stop advice from many quarters) to retire undefeated as leader and to let someone else try refreshing the Liberal brand. But as she’ll tell us tonight, she never considered quitting.

That decision means the outcome of next June’s grand consultation with the people is all on Wynne. Remarkably, despite her sluggish poll numbers, we are not reading daily accounts of Liberal MPPs who want her out. She has managed to keep the troops astonishingly loyal or astonishingly quiet or both. Again, because her numbers are low, she hasn’t (so far) managed to attract any high-profile new candidates to her side, or to raise much money.

Conversely, the Tories have already unveiled a former prime minister’s daughter (Caroline Mulroney) as a future candidate, with the promise of more star candidates to come. And the party’s bank account is filled to the rim to win.

Further complicating Wynne’s prospects: there’s a Liberal majority government in Ottawa. Ontarians for decades have had a habit of putting different parties in power in Ottawa and Toronto. In 2011, when I asked a former member of Dalton McGuinty’s unpopular government at what point he thought the premier had a chance to be re-elected despite his sagging popularity, the source answered: “The same night Stephen Harper won a majority government.” Sure enough, against all odds, McGuinty won later the same year, missing his own third consecutive majority by one seat.

I’d also be willing to bet that despite Wynne’s going to the mat for Justin Trudeau during the last federal election — campaigning harder for her federal leader than any other Ontario premier over the past three decades — the prime minister will not return the favour next year, if Wynne’s polling numbers are still weak. That might not be fair, but that’s politics. The official explanation may be that prime ministers don’t participate in provincial campaigns — and there is some truth to that. But by next spring, Trudeau will only be a year and a half away from his own re-election bid, and if Wynne is still unpopular, how likely do you think it is that he’ll want to hitch his wagon to Wynne’s horse? It says here, not very.

One more observation — and yes, you won’t be surprised if I go back to some advice from one of Ontario’s most successful premiers, the only one in the lifetime of anyone reading this who’s won four straight elections: Bill Davis.

“Smile more,” Davis has often told his successors. “You have to look like you’re enjoying the job, even when you’re not. People give you marks for that.”

So watch for the following over the next nine months from Ontario’s current premier: a focus on fairness, and despite the crushing expectations on her shoulders, lots of smiles.

After all, it worked for Davis.

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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