Why aren’t the Ontario Liberals more likable?

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 7, 2016
Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals are riding high, but that doesn't seem to be helping Kathleen Wynne's Ontario Liberals. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Ontario’s unemployment rate in July 2016 was was 6.4 per cent. Six years earlier, it was 9.3 per cent.

Ontario is expected to present a balanced budget next spring. The budget deficit in fiscal year 2009-10 was more than $19 billion. That’s a ton of red ink.

Ontarians love their booze. In 2015, we spent more than $5.5 billion at the LCBO alone. And starting next month, the Liberal government will allow Ontarians to purchase wine in 70 grocery stores, with that number eventually rising to 300 by 2025.

Those should all be unambiguously good news stories for the party in power, and they’re hardly trivial accomplishments.

And yet, a recent survey showed Premier Kathleen Wynne’s personal popularity hovering around the 16 per cent mark, and her party 11 points behind the Progressive Conservatives, who have a relatively new leader few people know. 

What’s going on here?

We know the problem isn’t the Liberal brand. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are at 48 per cent (compared to just 30 per cent for the Conservatives and 13 per cent for the New Democrats). The provincial Liberal parties in Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Yukon are all in first place. Even the British Columbia Liberals, who’ve been in power since 2001 (two years longer than Ontario’s Liberals) are leading the polls, seven points ahead of the NDP.

So why aren’t the Ontario Liberals more popular?

I’ve put that question to dozens of people, in person and on social media, over the past week. Here’s some of what’s come back.

“I believe it has to do with an inability to manage issues well,” says a former Liberal cabinet minister. “[Wynne’s] issues management crew seems to screw up even a good news story — although I can't think of a good news story lately.”

This ex-politician points out when you get into that kind of rut, even when you think you’re making good-news announcements, the public hears something else. Take, for example, the government’s new-found religiosity on cleaning up the political donation system.

“The simple fact is that when the media allege corruption and the government has a new and ‘better’ response every week, people believe the allegations must have been true,” this source says.

“And they don't believe a rules change will change the DNA.”

Similarly, this source argues, when the government set up an anti-racism secretariat to deal with the concerns of Black Lives Matter and First Nations, “the message to the people was ‘You think you are nice people but in fact most of you are bigoted racists.’”

We see examples of that on Twitter every day. Premier Wynne wanted to trumpet her government’s new policy of giving transgender people recognition and respect on their OHIP cards. She tweeted: “We’re building a more inclusive Ontario for everyone. Health cards are now inclusive of all gender identities.”

But it prompted this reply from @ScubaHobbs: “That’s helpful to about 30 or so. How about 60,000 families cut off from Hydro? Seriously, WAKE UP!!!”

The electricity file is clearly an ongoing problem for the government. On Facebook, Marc Cee posted this: “Take a government-owned energy corporation (Hydro One), partially privatize it, and immediately increase energy prices. Additionally, make delivery charges greater than energy consumption charges, which discourages conservation efforts to lower one's energy consumption.”

Ironically, the ex-minister quoted above concludes the only thing Premier Wynne is getting credit for is what she’s not doing, namely, not going ahead with the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which she scrapped.

Other comments? This from John Lymer, referring to the Liberals’ 13 years in power: “Ethics and perceived/actual corruption. They are seemingly the only party with any real ideas, yet clearly power has gotten to them after so long in office.”

Justen Cole says the Liberals are “out of touch on the cost-of-living crisis in this province. The HST added cost to everything, rent increases are approved every year, hydro and gas rates go up seasonally, user and licence fees keep going up, insurance rates don't seem to be abating.”

Steve Thomas thinks the government is overspending: “Debt is over $300 billion and growing. It is the largest non-sovereign debt in the world. There are now over 380,000 Ontario regulations, and more are on the way. The cost of compliance with this weight of government is not even measured.”

Interestingly, Thomas doesn’t seem to distinguish between former premier Dalton McGuinty’s tenure and Wynne’s. His next list of alleged sins happened on the watch of Wynne’s predecessor, but apparently they’re sticking to her: “GTA residents who want the electricity for their needs to be generated in someone else's back yard: a billion dollars. E-health, Ornge, Ontario Hydro, wind farms, the College of Trades — the list goes on and on, big cost and no benefit.”

Or this from Casey JL: “Scandals and mismanagement. It's frustrating and discouraging to see how poorly our government is handling tax dollars.”

Bill McCormick echoed that: “Fiscal irresponsibility. They are buying GTA votes with money our children will have to repay.”

To be an Ontario Liberal today sounds rather hopeless.

However, a little perspective is in order. Things looked dire for the Liberals in 2007, 2011 and 2014. And on all of those occasions, the party figured out what it needed to do to come back, and ultimately persuaded the largest chunk of Ontarians to vote for them.  Keith Maskell acknowledged as much in this Facebook comment: “I think the biggest problem is that, even with all their many failings, they're still the most realistic choice. The opposition parties are making hay on being anti-Liberal on everything, but that's not enough.”

Or this from Cheryl Wendy Hunt: “The only problem is that there is no provincial party that is better than what we have... in fact, they're worse!! The NDP is a fringe party not worth voting for and the PCs destroyed Ontario and are still on the same train wreck that got them thrown out of office! I don't always believe in everything the Liberals do, but they are better than what's left!”

In addition, we know that when the electorate is really hot, they turn out to vote in hopes of throwing the bums out. But the turnout in last week’s Scarborough-Rouge River byelection was only 28 per cent — hardly a clarion call to storm the Liberal barricades.

Moreover, Wynne has repeatedly proven that when the chips are down, she rises to the occasion. She was an underdog at Maple Leaf Gardens in 2013, and yet emerged from the Liberal leadership convention victorious. She was pummelled from both sides in the 2014 leaders’ debate and yet found her mojo in the last week of the campaign, snatching a majority government victory from the jaws of defeat.

In 2015, she overcame a police investigation and other controversies and won a byelection in Sudbury most thought was a hopeless cause.

Her government has already brought in several programs to mitigate the high cost of electricity, but don’t be surprised if you see more. The Liberals know they’re getting killed on this issue.

Having just spent dozens of hours in the Archives of Ontario doing research for a book on former premier Bill Davis, I find some of the parallels between Ontario’s 18th and 25th premiers intriguing. Time and again during his first decade in power, Davis was written off by pundits and critics. In fact, at the same point in his premiership that Wynne is at now — just under four years in — Davis’s prospects were abysmal. Defeat in the ensuing election was considered certain.

And just as Wynne’s Liberals lost a byelection in a seat her party had held for 30 years, Davis’s Tories did likewise early in his premiership as well.  It was in 1973 in Toronto’s St. George riding. Roy McMurtry was upset by the Liberals’ Margaret Campbell, in a riding the Tories had similarly held for almost three decades. 

Ultimately, Davis would figure it out, win three more elections, and keep the Tories in power for 14 years. And McMurtry would win his next time out, then become one of Ontario’s most respected and longest-serving attorneys general.

In other words, history teaches us that it is not smart to assume that a party that’s been in power for a long time can’t figure out how to right the ship nearly two years before the next election. It’s happened before, and it can happen again.

You may be tempted. But don’t write off Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals just yet. 

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