'Tis the season for Ontario politicians to be jolly

By Steve Paikin - Published on December 21, 2017
Kathleen Wynne, Patrick Brown and Andrea Horwath
Kathleen Wynne, Patrick Brown, and Andrea Horwath all have reasons to smile this holiday season.

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For 51 weeks of the year, our job at The Agenda is to critically analyze what our politicians do, say, and think.

But given that this is the holiday season, I figured it wouldn’t be too outrageous a notion to take a week off and point out all the things for which our leaders are no doubt grateful.

Let’s start with the premier. Kathleen Wynne is actually enjoying an uptick in support these days, and it shows. Earlier this year, her government couldn’t buy a good headline. Electricity prices were going through the roof; the Sudbury by-election trial was hanging over her head; opponents were taking delight in constantly pointing out that she was the least popular premier in the country by a wide margin.

And frankly, all that showed. The premier seemed to draw no joy from her job at all, and she certainly conveyed the impression of someone constantly in the political crosshairs.

But time (if you have it) has a way of making problems go away — and luckily for Wynne, these problems crested in the third year of her mandate, rather than a few weeks before election day. She has had time to change the channel, and she did so by introducing several popular measures, from “free tuition” for eligible low-income post-secondary students, to pharmacare for everyone under 25 years old, to a big bump in the minimum wage, which will reach $15 an hour by 2019.

Finally, over the past few weeks, the premier has also successfully put herself forward as a leader unafraid to face the music. She’s done two “no holds barred” town halls — in downtown Toronto and in Brampton — during which she subjected herself to some aggressive questioning from members of the public. Unlike the town halls former prime minister Stephen Harper used to do, these meetings weren’t invitation-only affairs. And yet the premier has come away looking accessible, connected to the electorate, and on top of dozens of policy files.

Wynne’s personal popularity numbers are still much lower than her supporters would like, but the party’s numbers are competitive, and the Liberals will happily take that. There have been 25 premiers of Ontario since Confederation. At four years and 313 days, Wynne is already the 14th-longest-serving premier (having passed Bob Rae a couple of months ago) and will move to 13th on the list in about 100 days. Not bad for someone who’s constantly reading her political obituary.

For Ontario’s opposition leader, 2017 was a very good year. As a rookie leader who hasn’t yet turned 40 (he’ll do that in the middle of the election campaign next May), Patrick Brown has seen a lot of things go his way. His Progressive Conservative forces have been in first place in almost every single poll for more than two straight years. His voracious appetite for fundraising erased the PC Party’s multimillion-dollar debt and has given his team a sizable financial advantage over its competitors.

But unquestionably the highlight of the year came in the last weekend of November, when the PCs caught everyone by surprise by unveiling their election platform, called “The People’s Guarantee.”

Promising more integrity in government, lower electricity prices, big subsidies for child care, the largest provincial investment in mental health ever, and income tax cuts, Brown won plaudits from some unlikely sources for his distinctly progressive conservative platform.

Not only that, he’s stared down and abandoned numerous groups traditionally within the PCs’ big blue tent who Brown thinks aren’t consistent with the modern, moderate, more urban force he’s trying to create. So while social conservatives may have significantly helped him win the leadership two and a half years ago, Brown has now distanced himself from them and instead constantly reminds us “It doesn’t matter who you love.”  He even marched in Toronto’s Pride parade.

He’s also disappointed the “Axe the Tax” forces that oppose Ontario’s introduction of a carbon tax. Brown has been categorical: he’ll scrap the current government’s cap-and-trade system by putting a price on carbon, thereby falling in line with federal policy.

If nothing else, Brown can count. He’s surely aware that his party hasn’t won a single seat in the province’s capital city over the past four general elections (that’s something like zero for 92) and seems determined to move the party away from its more right-wing, anti-union, narrowly defined conservatism in favour of something moderate “Bill Davis red Tories” can embrace. That approach has enabled Brown to attract some high profile candidates such as Caroline Mulroney (the daughter of Canada’s 18th prime minister), Rod Phillips (chair of Postmedia and a former chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation), Peter Bethlenfalvy (25 years in Bay Street finance), Denzil Minnan-Wong (a veteran Toronto city councillor), and Gillian Smith (chief marketing officer of the Toronto Region Board of Trade).

Again, the numbers don’t lie. Under previous leader Tim Hudak, the PCs had only about 10,000 members and were a dispirited lot. Brown has welcomed back the red Tories, dramatically broadened the base into multicultural communities, and now boasts a party membership north of 120,000 people.

Finally, even the perennial third-place party, the New Democrats, have reason for optimism. Next June’s grand consultation with the people will be Andrea Horwath’s third election as leader, giving her as much province-wide campaigning experience as Wynne and Brown combined. Polls consistently show Horwath as the most popular of the three major party leaders, and her campaign team now features some backroom advisers who actually have some victory notches on their belts, albeit it in other provinces.

Arguably, Horwath’s most significant contribution over the past few months has been to shine a light on hospital overcrowding all over the province, but particularly in fast-growing Brampton, where doctors and nurses are far too often accustomed to practising “hallway medicine.” With former deputy leader Jagmeet Singh now gone to lead the federal NDP forces, Horwath certainly wants to keep Singh’s beachhead in Peel Region within the NDP family, which surely partially explains the focus on Brampton’s woes during Question Period.

Unlike the Liberals, who are seeing several veterans decline to stand again for office, nearly all of Horwath’s current MPPs are re-upping. If you think incumbency stands for something at election time, that is surely an advantage. Furthermore, two familiar faces are running to add to the party’s ranks: federal NDP president and Toronto school-board trustee Marit Stiles (in Davenport), and John Rafferty, who lost his MP’s job in Thunder Bay–Rainy River in 2015 and will try to get back into politics at the provincial level next June in Thunder Bay–Atikokan. Both have strong name recognition in their respective communities.

So there it is: my optimistic, forward-looking analysis of the three major party leaders, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, consistent with the uplifting tone of the season.

Starting in January 2018, with six months until election day, we’ll put the fangs back in, and things will return to normal. In the meantime, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

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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