Now that Kathleen Wynne has emerged as the new leader of the Ontario Liberals, provincial politicians can get back to business at Queen’s Park.
Wynne, who has been both minister of education and minister of transportation, stepped down as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to run for the leadership. She has been in politics since 1994, so she knows the business of politics and has credible experience in provincial matters as she steps into the role of premier.
We could get into all the platitudes about Wynne being the first female premier of Ontario, but what really matters is how Wynne will go forward with the list of challenging tasks now on her desk as she takes the lead.
After all, the reason Wynne is now the Ontario Liberal leader has everything to do with Dalton McGuinty’s surprise resignation as premier last October following the onslaught from the Ontario New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives over the many problematic issues that have piled up during the Liberals’ nine years at the helm.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath has already signaled that the controversy surrounding the cancellation of power plants in Mississauga and Oakville will not go away until Wynne addresses it. Horwath is calling on Wynne to set up an independent inquiry. That would mean allowing the provincial parliament to get on with other business without the $200 million-plus cancellation penalties becoming a political football inside the House.
Wynne’s trademark calm and levelheaded approach will have to serve her well once the next session begins on February 19. She has already tried to set the tone with an early statement that “the rancour and the viciousness of the legislature can’t continue”.
Battling political opponents is one challenge, but to win Ontarians back, Wynne has to first configure a new cabinet that reflects she is serious about changing the focus and attitude of the old government, one that would signal this is indeed a new Liberal government. Yet, she still has to lead a minority government that is committed to taking control of a budget deficit amid political and public outcry that the Liberals have not been managing the province’s money very well and that public debt has increased on the Liberals’ watch.
There is bitterness about money having been wasted or spending not properly supervised while provincial medical records were being transferred to the new eHealth system and in the case of ORNGE air ambulance contract.
Then there is the matter of the angry and powerful teachers’ unions which, after years of being bolstered by the McGuinty Liberals, have been handed wage freezes, along with legislated removal of their right to strike, the so-called Putting Students First Act. That law has since been repealed, but the rancour has not died down. The thousands of teachers who picketed outside Maple Leaf Gardens during the leadership convention last weekend are evidence of that.
Parents and students are not happy that in protest teachers are refusing to provide extracurricular activities so it is easy to picture the Liberals being attacked from all sides, by the NDP and the PCs, by teachers’ unions or other union organizations supporting the teachers’ protest actions, and by students and parents.
Wynne may be right in observing that the Ontario electorate is in no mood for an election at the moment, but how she takes charge in the days to come could affect whether that mood will change and how urgently the public would feel the need for an election. She would need to forcefully remind Ontarians of the positives the Liberals have built up – improvements in educational outcomes, lower business tax rates, higher minimum wage, shorter hospital wait times – while not glossing over what she has termed Liberal “missteps”. She needs to continue to make a distinction between hers and the McGuinty plan as she did by disagreeing with McGuinty’s decision to prorogue parliament. She also needs to assure the mass of unemployed and underemployed as well as the private sector that she has a real economic plan, beyond just paying down the deficit.
Putting together an inspired cabinet would be a good start.