To make sense of the political signals emitting from this weekend’s Liberal leadership convention – and to see what lies ahead in the currently jumbled political situation – it’s helpful to keep an eye on the principal bouncing ball: change.
Political leadership races happen when change is needed. Aside from the very rare instance of a voluntary retirement, a leader’s career ends when a dead-end has been reached and the only way forward for a political party involves taking one or two steps back, choosing a new leader with a new direction, and resuming the march forward.
Such is the case with the Ontario Liberals. After nine years of broadly successful government – rewarded by three consecutive election victories – Dalton McGuinty’s government proved unable to master the minority government situation of the moment. Exit Premier McGuinty.
And now, after an exciting and (to some) surprising convention victory, enter Premier Kathleen Wynne. She certainly presents to Ontarians a highly likeable, surprisingly ebullient and very fresh political figure.
Much has been made of the immediate tactical challenges facing the Liberals. To an unusual degree, these bore on the convention’s decision – albeit likely more on the minds of the party’s leadership class than on the minds of the delegates. In the end, the party opted for the candidate with the least complicated path forward. (This prompted one Wynne-supporting wag to remark, ‘how did we ever make a lesbian from Toronto into the safe choice?’)
The trick for Ms. Wynne was to telegraph her openness to making the minority legislature work while showing the toughness required of a premier. Ms. Wynne very effectively accomplished this with her slogan “ready to govern; ready to win” and when she said, on Jan. 16, “I’m going to reach out to Tim [Hudak] and Andrea [Horwath], and we’re going to work together,” she said. “And then when that stops working, I’m going to beat them.” Liberals seemed satisfied.
Much has been made of the supposed ideological choice that the Liberals made this weekend, but this may be over-stated. There was no serious ideological cleavage in the ultimate choice between the two front-runners – at most an argument regarding strategy. In choosing Ms. Wynne, the Liberals have decided to seek re-creation of the McGuinty coalition by aiming at attracting voters from the very high current level of NDP and Green support in the province, as well as attracting moderate PC votes from the incrementally-advancing Tories. The principal difference between the two major candidates on the party’s direction had to do with the toolkit to be used in attracting those votes. Ms. Wynne’s approach – essentially to draw votes from the opposition rather than wrest them – will be the road Liberals take going forward.
So three issues were settled this weekend: Who leads; the approach to minority government; and which strategy for vote-growing prevails. What remains to unfold is the heart of the matter: The question of change, which only occupied a small – even subconscious place – in the deliberations of the convention. For it is change upon which the Liberals will be judged: Will they genuinely refresh themselves, remake their offering, and put something new on the table? If they do, they have a fighting chance to get above the turbulence caused by serious (but not inherently fatal) matters such as the ORNGE scandal, the gas-plant cancellations and the more consequential (but hopefully temporary) rupture of their partnership with the province’s teachers.
For the Liberals, the political key is to get beyond the politics of austerity in which the party has been mired since the last election. This is not to suggest a relaxation of fiscal discipline. To a woman (and a few men), each candidate swore up and down to stick to the fiscal framework of the McGuinty government – as they must, in order to govern responsibly.
However, a surprisingly rich bounty of fairly sensible ideas sprang out of the relatively brief leadership contest. Tax cuts for small business and the middle class, uploading the regional transit agency, a peace plan for teachers, new directions in social enterprise and community energy planning all figured prominently in the campaign’s policy discussions. This was not the stuff of ringing rhetorical challenges, but there’s more than enough material from which Ms. Wynne can both bring her rivals together, and back up her fresh authentic style with a genuinely renewed offering for Ontarians.
Premier Wynne and a renewed Ontario Liberal offering is a formidable combination. If she and her team manage current challenges and formulate strategic policy with creativity and élan, there is every possibility of Ms. Wynne joining an elite club of dynasty-renewers. It’s a good crowd to run with – just ask T.L. Kennedy, Leslie Frost, John Robarts – and Ms. Wynne’s friend, Bill Davis.
John Duffy of StrategyCorp was an advisor to former prime minister Paul Martin.