Slumping Ontario needs strong leadership

Published Mar. 31, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

If you are Kathleen Wynne, what do you do?

You have been leader of the Ontario Liberals for 14 months and premier of the province for 13. For most of that time, you have been spinning your wheels. In the 2011 election, your party, then led by Dalton McGuinty, came within one seat of a majority in the 107-seat legislature. But resignations, retirements and byelection attrition have eroded your standing. Today, the Liberals hold 10 fewer seats than the combined opposition (48-58, with one vacancy).

If you are Wynne, you know this. You know you may face an election this spring. You also know that, although your personal popularity is OK, your party’s numbers aren’t. According to the poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com, the weighted average of Ontario political polls, as of March 24, had the Liberals tied — at 34 per cent — with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives; Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats were nipping at your heels with 26 per cent.

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The experts say the Liberal vote is more “efficient” than the PC or NDP vote, because of the concentration of support in seat-rich Toronto. If they are right, you might eke out another minority government — if you are lucky.

You have survived for the past year by making nice to the NDP. You and Horwath agree on one thing: you don’t want Ontario to return to what you both regard as the Dark Ages of Mike Harris by making Hudak premier. (You may be right about the Dark Ages, but how do you persuade more Ontarians to buy into your Hudak aversion? Many voters see him as a friendly fellow, a good family man and new dad.)

So far, you have managed to secure Horwath’s support in exchange for a few shiny trinkets, such as a marginal reduction in car insurance rates or a minuscule increase in the minimum wage, but nothing very big or very costly. Nothing that engages the real issues and fundamental problems of the province.

Ontario is in a slump. The former engine of Confederation is running on just half of its cylinders. It needs growth and it needs skilled jobs of the high-wage, high-tech variety, not the part-time, minimum-wage kind. It needs real jobs, real careers, for university graduates.

To get there, Ontario needs renewed leadership, leadership with a vision for the future. It is not likely to get that vision from Hudak, as long as he looks back to the Harris era for inspiration, and Horwath does not project a sense of bold leadership; she seems too preoccupied with jockeying for position in the next election.

A year ago, I would have said Wynne could provide the leadership Ontario needs. I’m not so sure now. The battle for survival has taken its toll. Her government is still struggling to eliminate its deficit by 2018, leaving the province about three years behind better-heeled Ottawa in that important effort.

She has been unable escape from the nightmares of the McGuinty past. The hydro plant outrage occurred on his watch, not hers; but last week’s news that the police are investigating the scrubbing of computer files in the premier’s office during transition from McGuinty to Wynne moves the scandal dangerously close to her doorstep.

And all Ontarians had a right to be appalled when the annual “sunshine list” of top earners in the provincial employ was published last week; they could see how province-owned outfits, especially in the energy sector, have been hiring mediocre executives, paying them far more than they are worth in salaries and bonuses, then handing them severance packages in the six- and even seven-figure range when they fire them.

That largesse is not corruption. It is simple bad management. Ontarians don’t expect miracles (or even excitement) from Queen’s Park. But they do expect their affairs to be competently managed with proper respect for the taxpayer dollar. Can Wynne instil that image of competence and fiscal respect at Queen’s Park?

Politicians face tough times too

Published Feb. 18, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury.

Anyone who harbours the delusion that politicians lead a soft existence might take a look at the dilemmas that some leading political figures are facing.

Let’s start with Quebec where Premier Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois, clinging to a weak minority since September 2012 — and having procrastinated as long as possible — will bring down a budget on Thursday. The budget is widely expected to open the door to a general election this spring. That would be a real gamble. When Marois won in 2012, she did so with just 32 per cent of the popular vote, down three per cent from the previous election, when the PQ lost to the Liberals. But the way the vote split in 2012, she actually gained seven seats, to 54 in the 125-seat National Assembly.

While recent polls suggest Marois is within reach of a majority, if she falls short — if she loses or returns with a second minority — her leadership days would surely be over. But if she gets her majority, life will not be so comfortable in Ottawa. Quebec would be back on the national agenda.

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Let’s move on to Ontario, skipping lightly over Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford will continue to be a national embarrassment until the people throw him out next fall. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her minority Liberals are in trouble as all signs point to an Ontario election this spring.

Unable to shed the baggage of the Dalton McGuinty years, she has lost whatever momentum she enjoyed in the early months of her leadership. She has failed to demonstrate that she leads a party with new ideas and new priorities. Her government has become almost indistinguishable from the McGuinty Liberals who led the province for a decade, growing old and tired (and careless) in the process.

No one expected Wynne to win two byelections last week, in Niagara Falls and Thornhill, and the Liberals did run poorly in both, including Niagara Falls, a former Liberal seat. Tory leader Tim Hudak saved a bit of face by hanging onto Thornhill in suburban Toronto, but NDP leader Andrea Horwath emerged as the only winner by capturing blue-collar Niagara Falls.

Now — lest anyone think it is only politicians in power who confront dilemmas — Horwath, the leader of the third party, has to decide whether she will continue to prop up the minority Liberals or to force an election that she almost certainly can’t win. Another Liberal minority would be one outcome — so no change. A second outcome, even worse from the NDP perspective (but possible, the polls say) would be the election of a right-wing Conservative government headed by Hudak, a mini-Mike Harris. Howarth will be stewing over that dilemma until the Queen’s Park budget comes down.

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper doesn’t have to fret about an election just now, but he does have worries. After 20 years in politics, 10 as Conservative leader and eight as prime minister, he finds himself leading a government that has grown old, tired and increasingly arrogant. It is going the way of the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government of three decades ago. And it seems at times unable to cope, incapable of making decisions on such practical issues as the ordering of military hardware — search-and-rescue aircraft, new fighter jets, Arctic patrol ships, an icebreaker, naval resupply ships and maritime helicopters.

It tabled a budget last week that landed with a dull thump, destined to be remembered only for the rift it exposed within the cabinet and caucus over family income-splitting for tax purposes.

Worse, a new poll last week had some terrible numbers for the Tories. Nanos Research reported that 55 per cent of Canadians would not consider voting Conservative. The 36 per cent who said, yes, they would consider voting Tory, left the Harper party well behind the leading Liberals and the NDP, although still ahead of the Green party’s 27 per cent.

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

Open Government and Accountability?

A few weeks ago Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a new policy of “Open Government”. I read it with interest, but remain highly skeptical of, well, it. On its face, the policy seems to be composed of the appointment of a team of leaders from business, politics and the public sector. There are no trade union representatives, although perhaps one should not be too surprised by this in today’s age. There is one self-identified Conservative, one self-identified Liberal and none that I can identify from the NDP, although one person did work with the Mayor of Vancouver, who once sat as an NDP MLA in BC, so, who knows.

I raise this because the rhetoric of “openness” is premised on the notion of policy without politics: The engagement team is “just listening” and “engaging”; but if the ideological composition of the team is made up of one particular segment of the spectrum, well, politics seems fairly embedded into the process from the start, but without the advantage of clarity about the perspectives people represent. Thus, this attempt at non-partisan, open engagement, perversely, is highly opaque, rather than transparent. My colleague, Dr. Alcantara, made a similar point regarding the formal non-partisanship of territorial legislatures, here.

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This team is mandated to tour the province, “engaging people” to find out new ways of “engaging, innovating and collaborating”.

I find the rhetoric of “open government” and “transparency” and “accountability” fascinating; it has popped up routinely in Canadian politics, with the demise of the Meech Lake Accord serving as an important dividing line. You recall, was negotiated by 11 white men in suits (each of whom who had managed to win a majority of seats in their legislatures in the most recent election, but in today’s world, that doesn’t seem to count for much.) The exclusivity of that negotiating process led to a different, much more open and transparent and participatory process of the Charlottetown Accord, which, when put to a referendum of the citizenry as a whole, was defeated.

There are strong parallels between the situation in which the Wynne government finds itself and the situation that the Klein government found itself in 1992; and these parallels are instructive as to how common it is for Canadian governments to resort to this kind of rhetoric to secure their election and how often it fails. In 1992, the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta were long in the tooth, having been in power since 1971 (In the same way that one dog year is equal to about seven human years, one year in power for non-Alberta governments is equivalent to about 10 years for the governing party in Alberta). More importantly, it was struggling with the consequences of a policy whereby the provincial government was guaranteeing loans to private sector companies in a attempt to diversify the economy. One loan to a cell phone manufacturing company (!?) went bad when the company declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers were in the hook for about $500 million. People were mad, not just about the lack of funds, but also about the lack of transparency, openness and accountability in provincial decision-making. Alberta was ground-zero for the post-Meech Lake hostility to representative democracy and political parties and fed the growth of the populist, anti-party Reform Party at the time.

Enter Ralph Klein. The populist politician, par excellence, became Premier in 1993 and one of the first memos his government issued inside the government emphasized the need for a new dialogue with Albertans. His government quickly branded itself as one that “listened to Albertans”. His deputy premier and major backer, Ken Kowalski, wrote in an internal memo on the day Klein was sworn in:

The election of a new Premier creates significant opportunity to demonstrate a new openness in government communications and a new consultative approach in dealing with Albertans.

The Klein government made all kinds of ridiculous consultations: Klein was always on the radio, “talking to Albertans”; the government commissioned mailback surveys from the electorate about what the budget priorities should be, without any consideration of problems like self-selection bias; they commissioned expert summits to discuss issues, without thinking through potential problems of how people were selected or how problems were framed that were presented to summits; they passed Freedom of Information Legislation, and then promptly ensured that PR staff inside departments would monitor

There’s no wonder that the Wynne government is pursuing a strategy that shares the same premise, but has different manifestations. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper for politicians to promise to be “open” and “accountable” than it is to, say, promise to raise the minimum wage, or address shortages in long-term care for seniors. For another thing, this demand for openness in government is rooted in a deep cultural suspicion of bureaucracies, particularly political parties.

This shift is fine; I welcome it even. But there are trade-offs, and one of the trade-offs with this cultural shift is that we lose the appreciation for the efficiency and accountability that actually are inherently built in to hierarchical and bureaucratic systems. The more that citizens continue to express this suspicion without acknowledging the merits built into bureaucracy, the more politicians will be happy to distract them with cheap promises of “openness”, “accountability” and “transparency” using them to win elections in a system that is built on and requires the bureaucracy of political parties and hierarchical public administration. More often than not, this kind of rhetoric distracts and enables the reelection of governments that probably don’t deserve it on other issues, rather than enhances citizen control over their governments.

Wynne still trying to shake off McGuinty’s legacy

Published Aug. 6, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The jury is still out on Ontario’s Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne. That much, at least, seems clear from last week’s provincial byelections. The Liberals went into the fray with five seats, all held by former cabinet ministers; they came out with just two.

When she became leader and premier early this year, Wynne faced two challenges. The first was to make a clean break from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, with his administration (of which she had been a part) and with the legacy of mismanagement and scandal he left behind. The second was to demonstrate that she and her administration represent a new game in town.

She has done a fair job on the second front, setting a new tone for the government: kinder, gentler, more progressive and more inclusive. This success is reflected in Wynne’s personal popularity in the polls. But the first challenge, breaking with the McGuinty past, is proving more difficult than even she probably anticipated. The trio of McGuinty-era albatrosses — hydro generating plants, Ornge ambulance and the earlier eHealth misspending — still hang around her neck. There is no sign that they are going to go away any time soon.
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The five byelections did not add up to a game-changer, the way last fall’s Kitchener-Waterloo byelection (won by New Democrat Catherine Fife) did; Kitchener and Waterloo denied the McGuinty Liberals a majority government. Last week, the McGuinty record played a part but, as is often the case in byelections, high-profile candidates and strong local campaigns made the difference.

The Liberals knew they were going to lose Windsor-Tecumseh to the NDP’s Percy Hatfield, a popular city councillor and former CBC broadcaster, and they hoped to contain the damage to that one seat. My guess had been that they would lose two — Windsor-Tecumseh and either London West (where the NDP had a powerful candidate in Peggy Sattler) or Etobicoke-Lakeshore (where the Conservatives fielded Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday). As it turned out, they lost all three, retaining only Scarborough-Guildwood (with civic activist Mitzie Hunter) and Dalton McGuinty’s old seat, Ottawa South (where McGuinty’s longtime constituency assistant, John Fraser, parlayed his intimate knowledge of the riding and its voters into a victory for the Liberals).

Two out of five is not good enough for Wynne. Her minority government is more at risk this week than it was last week. The prospect that she might make it through to 2014 before having to call, or be forced into, a provincial election, is fading. An election this fall appears increasingly likely. She won’t be able to win it unless she manages to change the channel — to make voters stop thinking about the problems of the McGuinty past and start thinking about the promise of the Wynne future. It won’t be easy.

On the other side of the Queen’s Park coin, two out of five is spectacular news for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Victory in London and Windsor gives her momentum going into the fall session of the legislature. Her price for continued support of Wynne’s Liberals has suddenly gone up, perhaps dramatically.

But pity poor Tim Hudak. The Progressive Conservative leader performed disappointingly in the 2011 election. It was his to lose, and he lost it. A year ago, the Tories were blown out in the byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo, a supposedly safe Tory seat. With five seats up for grabs last week, Hudak desperately needed to bring home some goodies. The Conservatives talked boldly about London West, Ottawa South and even Scarborough-Guildwood, but all they could bring home was Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

That win did give the provincial Tories their first seat since 1999 in the city of Toronto. But that is scant consolidation. They did not win the seat because of Hudak, but rather because they had the celebrity candidate in Doug Holyday, with campaign assistance from Mayor Rob Ford, the India rubber ball of municipal politics.

Although Hudak’s job is not in immediate jeopardy, the voters did put him on notice last week.

Byelections draw Liberals, NDP closer

Published Aug. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

As bad as the results of Thursday’s Ontario byelections were for Premier Kathleen Wynne, they could have been much worse.

Her Liberal party can hardly be happy at losing three of five seats they had previously taken by margins of 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the 2011 provincial election. Nonetheless, it could be argued that it was even harsher news for Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, whose party took only one seat when expectations suggested they would be competitive in four.

The Liberal vote was down across the board, but in many cases it was the New Democratic Party that was seen as the beneficiary of disdain for the Liberals, despite their third-party status. Wynne’s luck was exemplified by the Liberals being able to retain the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, despite a 15 per cent decline in support, because the other two parties split the remaining vote almost evenly.

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Accepting NDP ideas could create Wynne-win situation

Published May 13, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This is how it is supposed to work in a parliamentary democracy, isn’t it?

Party leaders and their confederates present competing visions (or, more prosaically, platforms) for the electorate to consider. But once the election is over, smart winners don’t simply impose their visions.

They remember that elections are not decided by partisans (Tim Hudak take note). Core supporters are important, but elections are won or lost on the votes of “loose fish” — uncommitted or lightly affiliated voters — who swim around at election time. More important, smart winners understand that they have not been elected solely to cater to their core; they understand that people who did not (and might never) vote for them are entitled to the same consideration from the government as its partisans.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is a smart leader. She understands this. (The same cannot be said of the ideologues in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, or in the Republican party in the United States, but let us not go there today.)
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Because she is a smart leader, Wynne is suppressing the frustration she surely feels as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath keeps coming back for more, ratcheting up the price of her party’s support for the minority Liberal government’s budget. The latest demand: creation of a financial accountability office, patterned after the parliamentary budget office in Ottawa.

Horwath has already snagged some notable concessions, including reduced car insurance rates, more money for home-care and a youth jobs strategy. Now she wants an independent accountability officer, who would report to the speaker of the legislature, not to the government, to provide oversight of government spending.

Although Conservatives (and undoubtedly some Liberals, too) think Horwath has moved beyond poker to a different game — to wit, blackmail — what’s so wrong with that? If there had been a system of independent oversight earlier, some of the more egregious spending scandals of the Dalton McGuinty era might never have happened or been nipped in the bud: eHealth, Ornge ambulance, gas-plant relocations, to mention just three. As long as the government itself oversees government spending, bad stuff tends to slip through. A parliamentary or legislative budget officer is not a panacea, but the position does introduce an element of transparency and, one hopes, caution and restraint.

It’s worth noting that in Ottawa the parliamentary budget office was created in the wake of the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal by the first Harper minority government, then in its pro-accountability days. The Conservatives got much more than they bargained for as the budget officer, Kevin Page, shone a searchlight on government spending — on the war in Afghanistan, prisons and fighter jets, among other things. His term expired in March. He was denied an extension and the office remains vacant while the Tories conduct a leisurely search for a less vigilant watchdog.

At Queen’s Park, Wynne is trying to distance herself from McGuinty’s legacy. Her government still looks and acts too much like his. She needs new faces and new ideas. The spending watchdog is one idea whose time has come. Its projected cost, $2.5 million a year, is almost nothing next to the hundreds of millions wasted in the gas-plant fiasco alone.

So why does Wynne hesitate? Why doesn’t she thank Horwath effusively and grab this shiny new idea? For one thing, she knows that watchdogs have a habit of biting the hand that appoints them. For another, she knows that the more ideas she accepts from the NDP the more she enhances the credibility of a party that is fishing in the same pool of progressive voters.

But to flip that coin over, the risk is just as real for Horwath. The more ideas she insists the Liberals steal, the greater the attraction Wynne’s Liberals will have for her own NDP voters. Why stay true to Andrea Howarth when New Democrats can enjoy the same policies, and have a government to boot, by voting for Kathleen Wynne?

Such is democracy at work.

Geoffrey Stevens on CTV’s Province Wide

Broadcasted May 5, 2013, on CTV Province Wide

Geoffrey Stevens talks about what the future holds for Premier Kathleen Wynne and an Ontario election. Stevens believes that Wynne will be in good shape through the summer but notes that it will be interesting to see what happens in the Fall. There is a 50/50 chance that we will have an election in the Fall and a 100 percent chance that we will have an election at this time, next year.

You can watch the video by clicking here.

Tales of three political battles

Published May. 6, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Who says Canadian politics is dull?

In this neck of the woods, we are witnessing three fascinating political battles. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne is fighting for survival. Last week’s budget bought her Liberals some time, enough to get through the summer, I think, and probably the fall. My guess is she won’t make it – or want to make it – past next spring’s budget.

In Ottawa, the Liberal party, perceived to be moribund following three general election defeats, is struggling to return to life under Justin Trudeau, its fifth leader (including interim Bob Rae) in seven years. It’s beginning to look as though the Liberals will manage to self-resuscitate. A Harris-Decima poll for Canadian Press last week put them a surprising seven percentage points ahead of the Conservatives and 13 points ahead of the sagging New Democrats. These are early, honeymoon days, but those numbers aren’t at all shabby for a Liberal party that is running on charisma alone. Hope has returned to Liberal-land.
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Meanwhile, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, master of all he surveyed for the past seven years, is struggling to reassert control. His caucus is restive. Some MPs resent the discipline he imposes on them in Parliament; others refuse to distribute the ugly anti-Liberal propaganda produced by Tory party central. Among the public, there appears to be a growing sense that the Tories are going too far with their television attack ads.

Toughness is a quality that Canadian accept, even admire, in their politicians; meanness is not. The Conservative attack ads on Justin Trudeau cross that line. The Harper people don’t seem to care that some of their “facts” are distorted while some are simply untrue. Stephen Harper is becoming seen as Stephen McNasty, who plays politics hard and dirty.

He also needs to regain control over his legislative agenda. Whatever else they may be, the Harper Conservatives use to pride themselves on being competent managers. But no longer. Not with the F-35 debacle, the cabinet’s inability to organize the purchase of new search and rescue aircraft, and now there’s a report that the fleet of Arctic patrol ships the government plans to buy are not suitable for use in Arctic waters.

Not least, there is the “missing” $3.1 billion that Parliament approved for anti-terrorism security. The money is not technically lost; it’s just that the government’s financial wizards can’t find it. (Perhaps Treasury Board President Tony Clement hid it in one of his gazebos.)

But back to Kathleen Wynne, Andrea Horwath and the soap opera at Queen’s Park. The facts are simple. Premier Wynne and her finance minister had to bring in a budget. Being a minority government, they didn’t have enough votes to get it through the Legislature. The Conservatives had their feet planted in cement, but NDP leader Horwath was willing to deal. She presented a number of demands. Wynne accepted all the important ones.

“Thank you, Kathleen,” Horwath might have said. “Bless you. You are saint.” And she could have told her party, “Hey, we won! We won! Break out the soda water” (or whatever New Democrats uncork to toast a triumph).

But no. Hearing whispers of dissent, Horwath declared the deal was not yet a done deal. She decided she wanted to consult the people, so she opened a phone line and a website. She plans to meet the premier, probably this week, to seek assurances that the Liberals will change their spots and become more accountable in the future than they have been in the past. Good luck to her!

The NDP is playing with fire. If Howarth reneges, Wynne would not even have to wait to be defeated in the house. She would be within her rights to march down the hall to the lieutenant-governor, tell him the situation is untenable, ask for dissolution and call a snap election. She could win a Liberal majority on back of the faithless New Democrats.

Nothing dull about that, is there?

Ontario’s Liberals, NDP must seek a delicate balance

Published Feb. 4, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record

Surely everyone has heard of the ancient Chinese curse that translated loosely says, “May you live in interesting times.”

In fact, the curse may actually be of English, not Chinese, origin and it may have started out as a proverb rather than a curse. But no matter. Everyone has heard of it — certainly everyone at Queen’s Park these days.

Ontario politics have a reputation for being somewhat predictable. Some might describe them as an especially boring shade of grey. But no longer. No one — not the players or the pundits — has the faintest idea how the next few weeks and months may unfold. Any day could bring a surprise.

Interesting? More like fascinating.

All we can say with confidence is that Ontario is under new management. Kathleen Wynne will be sworn in as premier next Monday. She will appoint a cabinet. They will meet the Legislature eight days later, on Feb. 19. What will happen then is anyone’s guess.
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It seems reasonable to assume that Wynne, as leader of a minority government, will be anxious to avoid an early election. There’s not much polling data yet to draw on, but what there is suggests her personal popularity is high, higher than Andrea Horwath of the NDP (who places second) or Tim Hudak of the Progressive Conservatives (in third) — and higher, certainly, than the popularity of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.

Wynne’s popularity may be fleeting — about what one would expect for any new leader emerging from a highly publicized leadership convention. So far, her popularity does not seem to be translating into public support for her Liberals. One poll suggests the party under Wynne is still in third place (with the Tories in first) while another poll puts the three parties duking it out within the margin of error.

To avoid an election, Wynne will have look to Horwath and the NDP. To complicate matters, the two leaders are simultaneously natural allies and natural rivals. They are natural allies to the extent that both are at home in the centre-left of the political spectrum. But they are also rivals who must fish in the same pool of moderate or progressive voters.

Their dance will be a delicately calibrated minuet. Horwath will have to calculate how far she can push Wynne for concessions without pushing her into an election that could bring Hudak to power. For her part, Wynne will have to calculate how much she can afford to give Horwath without losing her own claim to be the voice of the moderate left.

On one level, these interesting times will be more predictable for Tim Hudak. He has the right side of the spectrum to himself. He can be expected to oppose anything Wynne or Wynne/Horwath try to do. His single objective is an election.

He will be operating on two assumptions. First, that the people of Ontario are so fed up with the Liberals that they will welcome the opportunity to complete the housecleaning they began in October 2011. Second, that the Conservative lead in the polls will convert into votes and seats in an election.

Hudak, however, may find both assumptions to be fallacious. I’m reminded of Ottawa in December 1979 when the minority Tory government of Joe Clark made two fatal miscalculations. They assumed the small Social Credit caucus was so terrified of an election that it would not dare to vote with the Liberals and NDP against Finance Minister John Crosbie’s budget. That proved wrong. The Tories also assumed that if the new government fell, the public would be so outraged that it would punish the Liberals by electing a majority Conservative government. Instead, the voters went back to the Liberals (who seemed competent if not lovable) and handed Pierre Trudeau a majority.

Those were interesting times in Ottawa, just as these promise to be interesting times at Queen’s Park. Interesting for all the anxious political players, not to mention the confused corps of political pundits.

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne: class, conviction and courage

Published Jan. 28, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record

There’s an old saying in politics that new leaders are never stronger than on the day they take over. If they are going to make changes, they should make them quickly, while the goodwill lasts and before their opponents get dug in.

Kathleen Wynne understands. Fresh from her victory at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention, she announced she will recall the Legislature, prorogued since last fall, on Feb. 19. Between now and then, she will appoint a cabinet, prepare a throne speech and meet with the opposition party leaders in the hope of winning their cooperation to avoid an election this spring.

That done, she will have to tackle some of the detritus left behind by Dalton McGuinty – the Ornge Ambulance and hydro-plant spending scandals; a provincial deficit now estimated at $12 billion this year; and a poisoned relationship between the provincial government and organized labour, especially the teachers and the other public sector unions. She has to do all this with a minority in the Legislature where at least some of her opponents hunger for an early opportunity to bring her down.

The next six weeks should give Ontarians a reasonably clear picture of what to expect from the Wynne government. They should also reveal where on the political spectrum she intends to position her party.
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Ever since Mike Harris moved the Progressive Conservatives to the Reform right, the Liberals have straddled the middle. McGuinty was particularly adept at moving the Liberals to the right to pick off Red Tory voters when the Conservatives threatened, or to the left to recapture soft Liberals when the threat came from the other direction. The Liberals knew they could win elections so long as they held the NDP below 20 per cent of the popular vote.

Wynne’s dilemma can be seen in a poll published on the eve of the convention. It put the Liberals in third place, about eight percentage points behind the first-place New Democrats and five points behind the Tories.

She knows three things. First, election-weary Ontario voters do not want another trip to the polls. Second, they want politicians to tone down the rhetoric and get back to work. Third, the route to avoid an election and to get the Legislature back to work goes through the NDP.

Conservative leader Tim Hudak, it is assumed, would trade his grandmother for a ticket to the polls; he knows the next election may be his last chance at the brass ring. NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Wynne come from a similar direction. Neither, for her own reasons, wants an election any time soon. As long as she can extract enough goodies at strategic intervals, Horwath will prop up the Liberals, perhaps through the end of this year, if not longer. For her part, Wynne made it clear in her speeches at the convention and in her press conference afterward that she is prepared to deal.

To my mind, the speeches made by Wynne and her principal rival, Sandra Pupatello, before the voting on Saturday were most interesting parts of the convention. Pupatello, the perceived front-runner, made a fine, but traditional, political speech, impassioned and partisan; no one doubted that she meant it when she said she would bring the opposition parties to their knees.

Wynne seemed more conciliatory, more disposed than Pupatello to work with the opposition. Wynne’s was one of the best convention speeches I have heard in years. It had class, conviction and courage, especially when she took on the “elephant in the room” – the issue of her lesbianism. She was absolutely convincing. Her words may have alienated some skittish delegates, but I think her powerful candor made it virtually impossible for moderate delegates who had been supporting Charles Sousa and Gerard Kennedy not to move to Wynne on the final ballot.

Now, Wynne has a chance to turn her Liberals into a progressive presence on the provincial scene. If she succeeds, the NDP will be the loser.