Why is Kathleen Wynne so unpopular? It may not just be about policy

By Steve Paikin - Published on April 19, 2017
Kathleen Wynne waving to crowd at the Pride Parade in Toronto
Kathleen Wynne walks alongside her partner, Jane Rounthwaite, at the 2016 Pride Parade in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/CP)

Every now and then, I put a giant target on my back by pointing out things that will no doubt make readers want to kick me because they think I’m so far off-base.

This is one of those times. But please indulge me for a few minutes before kicking me.

Ever since Kathleen Wynne’s approval numbers started plummeting, I have been casting my inquisitive net far and wide to determine why the premier is so unpopular.

It likely won’t increase my own popularity to point out the following, but so be it. The pervasive narrative these days is that Wynne is simply no good — and anyone who says different invites scorn. Yet by so many criteria, Ontario is doing objectively better today than it was when Wynne assumed the premiership in February 2013.

Take, for example, Ontario’s unemployment rate: today it's 6.2 per cent. When Wynne took office, it was 7.7 per cent.

On April 27, the provincial government will announce it’s projecting a balanced budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, fulfilling a commitment the Liberals made years ago when deficits were through the roof.  

It’s true that electricity prices — particularly in rural and northern Ontario — have been stubbornly beyond the reach of too many people for too many years. But Wynne has announced she’ll cut rates an average of 25 per cent starting June 1, by extending the time required to pay back the billions borrowed to improve the system. Yes, that will mean higher rates for our children and grandchildren, but plenty of Liberal MPPs have told me hydro pricing is now practically a non-issue among their constituents.

Post-secondary education for lower-income households will now be “free” going forward, removing a barrier that kept too many young people from realizing their academic potential.

Pundits and elites (not so much “real folk”) blasted the government for sanctioning a Wild West approach to political fundraising. Wynne intervened, passed one of the most restrictive fundraising laws in the entire country, and now ironically finds herself unable to fill her party’s coffers due to the tougher conditions.

The housing market in the Greater Toronto Area is going gangbusters, which is a beautiful thing for those looking to sell and move somewhere cheaper (albeit not so beautiful for those who want to move to more-desirable locales and shorten their stress-inducing, spirit-draining commutes). And construction crews are all over the region, building billions of dollars’ worth of public transit, after decades of underinvestment.

Marginalized groups have a new anti-racism secretariat to champion their issues; the government is moving to restrict the practice of “carding”; the Special Investigations Unit, which looks into police shootings, has been ordered to conduct its work more transparently.

The Liberals’ cap-and-trade system, aimed at fighting climate change, is now in effect, and the first auction of carbon allowance permits sold out in no time flat.

I could go on, but you get the idea: this government obviously feels it has a good story to tell, and by several criteria it does.

Of course, there is the other side of the story. A number of events have conspired to chip away at the government’s cheery narrative. Plenty of people can’t understand why the Liberals want to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a one-stop Scarborough subway, beyond the craven political reasons.

Others don’t fancy the idea of Wynne selling off 60 per cent of Hydro One, figuring we own it and are entitled to reap the dividend benefits of that ownership.

Wynne’s progressive base was mortified when, after weeks of signalling that she wouldn’t intervene in the city of Toronto’s plan to raise money for infrastructure through road tolls, she rode in at the 11th hour and put a stop to it, again, for what appeared to be purely political reasons. (Her caucus — particularly the 905ers — practically demanded she intervene, saying they would lose their seats if she didn’t.)

And there are smaller issues as well, ones that irritate the hell out of people: covering the cost of pizzas for teacher unions during contract negotiationsoffering $14,000 rebates to presumably wealthy Ontarians so they can more easily afford to buy Tesla electric cars; and having the health minister call a press conference to demonize Ontario doctors.

Moreover, while racialized groups may appreciate the anti-racism secretariat, some Ontarians feel they’ve been unfairly tarred as bigots for not supporting the venture with as much enthusiasm. The minister responsible for the initiative, Michael Coteau — himself a black Ontarian — appeared on The Agenda Tuesday to tell people that, yes, systemic racism is a real problem in this province.

Still, when you look at the pros and cons of Wynne’s four years and 67 days in the premier’s office, it’s hard to understand how she’s come to be Ontario’s most unpopular premier of all time.

This is where I put the big target on my back again. Over the past six months in particular, I have heard a great deal of off-the-record chatter from Liberals who believe this province simply isn’t as progressive as once believed. In June 2014, Ontarians gave Wynne a majority government despite her being two things that very few political leaders in this country have been: female and openly gay. And Wynne’s sexuality rarely came up in the campaign.

But dig deeper, and you’ll hear people confess that they didn’t mind the premier when she was a touchy-feely, kumbaya sort of leader. Wynne still has that air, but she is more than that now. She’s competitive as hell, sometimes to her detriment. She’s made some hard decisions that might have been rewarded if they’d come from a male leader. But from a female leader in a culture sadly not free of sexism, such decisions are a tougher sell.

The fact is, even though she’s been one of Ontario’s most accomplished politicians of the last three decades (top cabinet jobs, party leadership, majority government), there is evidence that Wynne still has to deal with subtle forms of sexism. Can you imagine Stephen Harper, in a meeting with captains of industry, being repeatedly interrupted before he’s finished talking? I can’t. And yet I hear it happens to Wynne all the time.

Environment Minister Glen Murray is one of the few who will go on the record about this. “If Kathleen Wynne were a man, she wouldn’t be facing any of this stuff,” he tells me. “It’s sexism, plain and simple.”

Wynne has never presented herself as a particularly strong advocate for the gay community, and yet I hear whispers that people are becoming less comfortable with her sexual orientation and with the role Wynne's spouse, Jane Rounthwaite, plays in the premier's decision-making. I hear more and more “jokes” where the punch line goes something like, “If you want to know government policy on this issue, ask Jane.”

Perhaps provincial affairs pundits overreached in their interpretation of Wynne’s 2014 electoral victory. Perhaps the results were more a repudiation of Tim Hudak’s conservative agenda than an endorsement of Wynne’s progressive one.  

None of this is meant to defend the indefensible. Some of Wynne’s unpopularity is well earned, whether through bad policy choices, bad implementation, or bad communication. She leads a party that has been in power since 2003 and has accumulated plenty of barnacles on the ship of state in that time. Sometimes, as Stephen Harper found out in 2015, people just get tired of you, no matter how much you’ve accomplished.

But I do mean to put out there for discussion something that many people are addressing only in whispered tones, and almost never on the record. If Wynne were a heterosexual man rather than a gay woman, would her approval rating be so low?

Is it possible that part of the reason her poll numbers are down is that Ontario is a less progressive, more sexist, and more homophobic place than any of us would like to admit?

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