Saturday night, in old Maple Leaf Gardens, the Ontario Liberals gave Kathleen Wynne the leadership of their party on the third ballot.
Wynne, former minister of education, transportation, municipal affairs & housing and aboriginal affairs in Dalton McGuinty’s governments, is the Premier-designate of Ontario.
She has promised to recall the legislature, prorogued by McGuinty to stop his government from circling the drain and slipping away last October, for the day after Family Day. The Throne Speech should come on February 19.
It’s at that point Wynne’s future will be revealed. Her acceptance speech said it all: “this was the easy part.”
Becoming leader was the first, and easiest challenge. Actually getting to govern for more than a few weeks is the tough one.
As with Canada’s first and only female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, Wynne inherits a government detested by the people of Ontario.
Unless she can govern for an extended period of time, she will keep all of the McGuinty legacy draped around her neck. She’ll wear the teacher protests, the managerial failures in the Health Minister’s office, the fiscal malfeasance at ORNGE, the cost of saving Liberal seats with taxpayer money by moving power plants, the pending debt downgrade, the whole lot.
Waiting in the wings for Wynne are knives within her own party being sharpened now. An early election, and a loss, would suit them admirably.
There are those who don’t believe a Torontonian should be a party leader (Wynne represents Don Valley West, a Toronto riding); there are those who don’t believe a lesbian should be a leader; there are those who don’t believe someone identified as being on the left of the party should be the leader; and there are those who can’t accept that the party didn't vote them in, plus the ones that didn't run because they knew the best time to seek the leadership was after the party lost an election.
Wynne gained the leadership despite speaking some hard home truths. The biggest of these was recognizing (finally) that the Greater Toronto/Hamilton Area’s gridlock is an economy-killer — and that the only solution is to get serious about making up a three decade long deficit in meaningful transit infrastructure construction. That, in turn, can only be funded (and behaviour changed) by putting far more of the cost of driving on drivers: congestion charges, fuel taxes, parking increases, vehicle taxes, a suite of mechanisms to get people to get more mileage out of the existing roads.
Give Wynne credit for that: you can’t double the region’s population and try to jam it through a transportation infrastructure designed for half that size (or less), and it’s going to be painful to fix — so put the pain where it matters.
Wynne has a hole card she can play in this game of high stakes political poker. That’s to take a good hard look at her opponents.
McGuinty wasn't a successful politician on his own merits. Frankly, he faced inferior opponents, from the PC’s Ernie Eves, John Tory and current leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Howard Hampton.
Note that, once 2011 came and current NDP leader Andrea Horwath entered the game, he slipped into a minority situation. Horwath is the first decent opponent he faced.
Horwath — unlike Hudak, who used the prorogation period and leadership race to issue policy papers and make threats — has kept a low, quiet profile while the Liberals sorted themselves out, only criticizing the prorogation itself. (In this, she’s much like Ontarians, who are deeply angry at McGuinty’s move, but don’t take to the streets about it.)
Ontario’s NDP knows what a Liberal leader in trouble coming with proposals of a legislative accord means, thanks to the way David Peterson pillaged Bob Rae in 1985-87. Once the polls shift, it’s off to an election to dump the “junior partner”.
If Wynne screwed up her courage, approached Horwath, and proposed a UK-style coalition like the one David Cameron has with Nick Clegg (one with terms and conditions for ending the government and with both parties in Cabinet), she’d probably get it — and secure the time she needs to govern, build her own reputation separate from McGuinty, and kick the knife-wielders in the Liberal party in the teeth.
Otherwise, Wynne’s government is on borrowed time, and although today the PCs lead in the polls, Hudak remains less popular than even McGuinty. The most likely outcome is another minority, equally probably an NDP one as a PC one.
The next few days will show whether Wynne plans to be Premier, or a footnote in history.