Less than a year ago, you couldn’t get in the doors at Queen’s Park without tripping over some speculation that Premier Kathleen Wynne was going to make a premature exit from provincial politics.
In March of last year, former Liberal finance minister Greg Sorbara, appearing on The Agenda, said Wynne had to consider resigning for the good of the party. In April, the Toronto Star reported that speculation over Wynne’s future was “at a fever pitch.” The speculation followed her into the summer, including at her August speech to caucus, to which half the Queen’s Park press corps showed up prepared for her to make her last speech as party leader.
I was at Queen’s Park on Wednesday, as the premier sat next to the lieutenant-governor to swear in new members of her cabinet. I can confirm that Kathleen Wynne is still premier as of this writing, and that there’s no sign she’s going anywhere until voters have made their decision known later this year.
All that said, the Liberal leader’s personal approval ratings trail those of her party and of her own policies. That’s been true for a while now. So why did she choose not to step aside in favour of someone who might stand a better chance of prolonging the Liberals’ election winning streak?
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When asked, Wynne has been straightforward about why she’s staying on. “I thought responsibly and seriously about that, because there were lots of people saying it to me,” she told Steve Paikin on The Agenda in September. “But in my heart I never believed that I would leave, I believe that my work is not done, and I need to lead the party into the next election.”
Wynne’s reasons for staying are one thing, but it’s just as important to note that there simply hasn’t been a strong desire within the Liberal caucus to replace her. Reporters can write what they want, but at the end of the day, the Liberal leader is chosen by Liberal members, and both the party and (especially) its MPPs remain loyal to Wynne.
A cynic would say that’s because many of them owe their jobs to her, since Wynne’s personal popularity in 2014 (a mirror of today; she was more popular than the party) unquestionably saved some Liberals in precarious ridings and flipped a number of Tory and NDP seats, too. But that would be unfair: Wynne has, by most accounts, kept her caucus if not always happy, then at least assured of a fair hearing. This is basic stuff, but other leaders have failed to keep their MPPs happy — and to keep them onside when the going got tough. The going has been tough for the Liberals this year and last, and they’ve mostly stuck with Wynne.
It follows that because there hasn’t been a tidal wave of dissent to sweep her away, there also isn’t an obvious candidate to replace Wynne. There are certainly men and women in her caucus who wake up in the morning and see Ontario’s Next Premier™ in the mirror, but their time hasn’t come.
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Indeed, Liberals I’ve spoken to over the past two years have consistently dismissed speculation about Wynne’s resignation as “grumbling” from a small minority in the party. And some, with the recorder turned off, have used words cruder than “grumbling.”
Of course, the only cause to ask “Why doesn’t Wynne resign?” is that there’s a credible reason to think her replacement would do better, either for the province or for the party — and I don’t think there is one.
The province deserves the best premier it can get, and until the election changes the make-up of Queen’s Park, that limits the choices to Liberal MPPs. It’s no slander against the rest of them to say that on any given day, Wynne is simply the sharpest policy thinker at the cabinet table. You can disagree with her choices — and I have, often strongly — but she’s not afraid of complexity, and she has a clear grasp of how the machinery of government works.
Grumbling Liberals may still tell themselves that the party could win with someone else at the helm. That’s delusional, and it’s dishonest. Delusional, because a new face would still have to defend all the unpopular choices Wynne has made (as Wynne once had to defend Dalton McGuinty’s energy policies). Dishonest, because it puts responsibility for the Liberals’ failures solely on their leader. After 14 years in power, there’s plenty of blame to go around — including among Wynne’s potential successors. Are outraged voters baying for Liberal blood going to be placated if Wynne is replaced by the health minister who waged a years-long fight with doctors? By the education minister who closed rural schools? By the transportation minister who wanted a train station built in a corn field?
To say that Wynne should lead her party into the next election does not constitute an endorsement of the Liberal party itself. (TVO’s not allowed to endorse any party or candidate, in any event.) But the Liberals are where they are today in large part because they trusted Wynne and followed her when it was easy, when they won in 2014. They followed her as she privatized Hydro One and built complicated financial machinery to lower hydro prices. They followed her when she slashed college tuition fees and offered free prescription drugs to anyone 24 and under.
And they’ll follow her until the last vote is counted on June 7.