Why the Liberals will — and won’t — miss Kathleen Wynne

OPINION: The former premier has announced she won’t be running for re-election. Like her or not, she leaves big shoes to fill
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 20, 2020
Former premier Kathleen Wynne stands beside her portrait after its unveiling ceremony at Queen’s Park on November 9, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)



There’s a story I like to tell about Kathleen Wynne, and I hope she won’t mind my putting it in print here: during one of her appearances on The Agenda, I was asked to stand by in the TV studio while Steve Paikin peppered her with questions and then to tweet out anything interesting. I don’t remember much about the interview itself, but as she left the studio, Wynne saw me and asked how I was doing with my daughter, who was then still an infant.

“Oh, I’m doing all right,” I said. “The good thing is she’s a champion sleeper.”

The 25th premier of Ontario and mother of three gasped just a little and said, “I never got one of those.” We shared a quick laugh before she was hustled out and off to her next appointment. It was a small moment, but as someone still in the first year of parenthood, I appreciated her effortless sympathy.

Wynne will not be returning to Queen’s Park after the next provincial election in 2022. The former premier and current MPP for Don Valley West told the Toronto Star on Monday that she’ll serve out the rest of the 42nd Parliament at the legislature but will not run for re-election. By spring 2022, she will have served almost 20 continuous years as an MPP (she was elected in 2003), having spent time before that as a Toronto school trustee.

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Everyone leaves politics eventually, either willingly or not, and Wynne’s announcement is not terribly surprising. Being an MPP — even for a third party, when you don’t have as many duties or a chockablock schedule — is a full-time job, and politicians are still humans with lives and loved ones vying for their time and attention. She has done the job of an opposition MPP faithfully and served her constituents well, and she has more than earned a break.

(Here’s the obligatory note in which I remind readers that MPPs, unlike federal MPs or municipal city councillors, don’t have pensions. Wynne is retiring from a generation-long career in public service with her savings to show for it.)

The former Liberal leader’s decision is a mixed blessing for her party. The blunt truth about the 2022 election is that Steven Del Duca will necessarily be trying to turn the page on the Wynne era in Liberal politics and portray himself as a new leader of a renewed party, while both the PCs under Doug Ford and the New Democrats under Andrea Horwath will be trying to remind voters about all the reasons they handed the Liberals such a drubbing in 2018. Wynne’s departure from the scene makes Del Duca’s job marginally easier on that score.

And that’s before even acknowledging that, no matter how well everyone behaves, it’s always awkward to have a former party leader haunting the halls of power like Banquo’s ghost. Indeed, some members of Del Duca’s team speculated to me earlier this year (during the party’s leadership race) that Wynne would stick around after 2022 because she was skeptical of the man who is now the party leader. That guessing was obviously wrong.

But Wynne’s announcement isn’t an unalloyed blessing for the party. It opens up another seat for the Tories to vie for in Toronto, where the Liberals would prefer not to have to defend any territory as they try to rebuild their caucus. There are plenty of seats in the city where the Liberals will likely do well, but Wynne’s is one the Tories can at least make a plausible case for: she herself barely won re-election in the bloodbath that was 2018, and whoever succeeds her as the Liberal candidate there will not be able to draw on decades of voter loyalty or name recognition the way she did.

The more subtle problem is that, even if a monkey’s paw were to grant Del Duca’s wish and he ended up leading a majority in the legislature after 2022 (don’t laugh: it could happen), he’s going to want every experienced MPP he can get his hands on to form a cabinet. At the moment, there are a grand total of eight Liberals in the legislature, and only four — one of them Wynne — have held cabinet rank before. Her departure means that Del Duca’s best-case scenario is that his party will be running with three incumbent MPPs with direct experience in governing. That’s not the whole picture, of course: Del Duca himself has held a minister’s portfolio, and Liberals who were defeated in 2018 could be their party’s standard-bearers once more in 2022. But if Wynne’s departure makes Del Duca’s job easier in some ways, he’d be a fool not to recognize the experience and skills she’s taking out the door with her.

It can be difficult to remember in this social-media-driven age, but politicians are more than their errors, and their careers are worth more than their worst days. I don’t think Wynne covered herself in glory in the spring of 2018 (for reasons that aren’t worth revisiting here), but when Queen’s Park was buzzing with rumours that she would retire early and let someone else lead the party into the election, I defended her right to stay on, because she was the best Liberal for the job. In my time at Queen’s Park, I’ve interviewed plenty of cabinet ministers who had only the barest knowledge of their files — men and women alike who knew exactly and only what was in their briefing binders but had clearly never been curious enough about their jobs to ask even one follow-up question of the public servants who labour to keep them from looking dumb in public.

Wynne is something else, an MPP who was always comfortable with the details of policy but tempered her policy-wonk side with a deep well of empathy for people she wanted to help. She governed believing that getting policy details right mattered because of the effects they have on people’s lives. She’s earned her rest, but the next legislature will be poorer for her absence.

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