By PATRICK HUNTER
There are a number of questions about the election of Kathleen Wynne as the new Premier of Ontario. A critical one is: Are we on the verge of a new era in Ontario politics, or just a new phase? An answer in the short term is likely to be a new phase.
Yes, she is a woman. Yes, she is a lesbian. Yes, she has held portfolios that are critical to Ontario’s position in the country and the world. And yes, she is the first premier of Ontario from Toronto since Bob Rae. There are other pluses as well. Overall, I extend my congratulations to Wynne on her victory. I also congratulate her on her courage to face and respond to her party and the Ontario electorate for what the media appears to have dubbed “the elephant in the room” – whether Ontario is ready for an openly gay premier.
As to the latter, Wynne has clearly provided an answer which echoes the rhetorical question posed by William Shakespeare in A Merchant of Venice:
“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
The biggest challenge that Wynne faces is restoring an electable image for the Liberal Party of Ontario. There was a certain candour in her approach as reflected in her speeches and the post-convention news conference that presents a new spirit that was different from the somewhat cool and unemotional image of Dalton McGuinty. That image could translate into a less hard-line approach to negotiating with the teachers and other public service workers.
But let us step back a bit. Before and since the last provincial election, the Liberals have been in crisis. The closure of power plants for political reasons, the mess over the air ambulance and the ballooning deficit resulted in what can be described as a stalemated scenario – a minority government. Rather than working to minimize sharp disagreements on approach, the Liberals decided to attempt to govern as if they were a majority, without saying so. Their actions, however, pointed clearly to that approach.
Hence, they introduced legislation which imposed an agreement on the teachers. This was part of the hardline approach that Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan decided to take – an approach that led McGuinty to give up and step away using the controversial tactic of proroguing the legislature to mask his departure.
Whoever succeeded McGuinty as leader and premier would not only have to be prepared to defend the move, but would also have to diplomatically condemn it in light of the resulting tumult that followed that action. If the new leader came from the cabinet, it would be a harder task because, presumably, he or she would have been at the table when they made the decisions. Therefore, they would be equally culpable.
Had Sandra Pupatello or Gerard Kennedy won, they would have plausible deniability in that they were not even in the caucus when the decisions were made.
We may never know what the discussions at cabinet and caucus were like – who supported what – and one may speculate that Wynne opposed the approach, particularly with the teachers, but that would be pure speculation. But, if one were to read the entrails, this former Minister of Education (and Kennedy, too, for that matter) had enjoyed a positive relationship with the teachers’ unions. They would more than likely have balked at the idea of going tough.
The task for Wynne is not an enviable one. You do not trash the actions of your former leader. Yet, it is clear that those actions were, and are, unacceptable. So, treading carefully through the hot coals of the trail left behind by McGuinty, Wynne will have the unenviable task of – to borrow the metaphor – putting lipstick on a pig.
The first indication of the attempt to change will come from the choice of cabinet members and the possible realignment of ministries. For example, I would be very surprised if both Duncan and Laurel Broten retain their portfolios as finance and education ministers respectively. For one thing, Duncan was an ardent supporter of Pupatello. But his hard-line approach to fixing the deficit is partially what got the Liberals into this mess in the first place. The same can be said for Broten, who is seen as the implacable conduit of the hard line against teachers.
It is unlikely that the African-Canadian community will see any noticeable change in how our issues are addressed in the short term. Apart from the fact that we do not fall within the priority index at this time, any new, bold measure would probably have to wait until and if Wynne gets her own mandate after an election.
One thing is clear: Wynne is likely to take the party to the centre-left and thus, may cut into the New Democrats’ support. Andrea Horwath will need to be more definitive in demonstrating her party’s differences in policies. The likelihood of another Liberal-NDP coalition is also in the air even as Tim Hudak continues to sound more and more like Mike Harris.