Kathleen Wynne has proved to be a relatively effective leader since becoming Ontario premier, but now she has taken a serious misstep. Her decision to hold five by-elections in the dead of summer has reinforced the impression that the Ontario Liberal Party has lost touch with voters and puts its own interests first.
The provincial Liberals have been a party and government in survival mode. Under former premier Dalton McGuinty, they went from two solid majority governments in a row to minority-government status in the October, 2011 general election. Mr. McGuinty stepped down a year later, prorogued the Legislative Assembly, and left his diminished party to contend with troubling disclosures about the cancellation of two power plants and the fallout from a year-long work-to-rule campaign by teachers.
Ms. Wynne’s rise to party leader and, thus, premier, in February temporarily halted the bleeding. But now she has undermined her efforts to regain the public trust. We are not naive about the fact that governments call elections on dates that suit them – but five by-elections bunched together on Aug. 1?
By-elections historically favour the incumbent party, as does low turnout. Any election campaign that runs from just after Canada Day to just before Ontario’s Civic Holiday (known as Simcoe Day in Toronto) is guaranteed to minimize voter participation. Ms. Wynne could have chosen to hold the by-elections in mid-September, when Ontarians will be back from their holidays and more able to focus on the issues and the candidates, but instead she chose to stack the deck in her party’s favour. It’s a cynical and partisan move, and all too much in keeping with the recent history of the Liberal government.