If Kathleen Wynne’s victory had come solely on the strength of having Gerard Kennedy and Eric Hoskins standing behind her, there would be serious cause for concern that the Ontario Liberals are in the process of abandoning the political centre for a run at the left. But Ms. Wynne is premier-designate of Ontario because she was able to rally support from all sides of the Liberal party on Saturday.
Trailing Sandra Pupatello on the first two ballots, Ms. Wynne was able to capture the prize on the third and final vote because she attracted the support of Charles Sousa, whose own campaign to be the “jobs premier” suggested a move to Ms. Pupatello would have been much more logical.
Mr. Kennedy said that Ms. Wynne’s desire to help the vulnerable and restore labour peace with the province’s teachers resonated with him. But Mr. Sousa’s decision provides some hope that the Liberals will indeed be fiscally prudent, and perhaps even that Mr. Sousa might be appointed finance minister. Ms. Wynne has already suggested she will not undo the labour contracts that have infuriated public-sector workers, and indeed flirting with such a retreat would be fiscally explosive.
Dalton McGuinty, the outgoing Premier, after years of increased spending in education, health care and other public services, wisely last year sought to put a halt to it. Faced with serious fiscal challenges, Mr. McGuinty got tough with the unions. “Zero means zero” was the mantra. After years of generous settlements, it wasn’t too much to ask, but labour was rallying en masse outside the leadership convention on Saturday and Ms. Wynne will be tempted, no doubt, to loosen the purse strings, if not this time then next. Ontario will be looking for some restraint from Ms. Wynne on that front.
One welcome signal is her decision to quickly recall Ontario’s legislature. The prorogation was a disgrace, and Ms. Wynne was among the first to raise an eyebrow when Mr. McGuinty suspended active democracy.
Ms. Wynne’s Liberals would be wise to produce an economic statement, or perhaps a new budget, sooner rather than later. There are plenty of other issues that she will want to take on, but they all pale next to the need to restrain and reduce spending.
Last week, the province’s 2012-13 deficit projection was adjusted to $11.98 billion, down from $14.4 billion last fall. The improvement was due to higher than expected corporate tax revenues and one-time savings from the elimination of banked sick days for teachers. The rating agencies are no doubt watching Ontario with interest. Wrong signals from Ms. Wynne – or worse, no clear signals at all – would threaten to provoke a selloff of provincial debt, further downgrades and higher interest payments. Were that to happen, the new premier would have to say goodbye to enhanced teacher benefits, social spending, and any other sugarplums that may be dancing in her head.
For someone who campaigned as a “social justice” candidate, it will not be easy to say no. There will be demands for new social spending. Cities will also want more, starting with Toronto and its troubled transit system. Financially strapped colleges and universities will also want more, and on it goes.
We all must wish Premier Kathleen Wynne well. The entire country needs Ontario to get its fiscal house in order. If the Liberals she now leads are not up to that challenge, there is another party in Ontario that is ready to demonstrate it is.