ADAM RADWANSKI

With eyes on transportation, Premier Wynne takes a big risk

The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne listens to comments from across the floor at Queen's Park on March 4, 2013. Ms. Wynne’s government has made peace with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, but does so at a steeper price than previously thought. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The people around Kathleen Wynne don’t want to hear about the parallels; probably don’t even want to think about them.

A rookie Liberal Leader will stake her fortunes on a controversial issue that captured her attention while she was a minister. She will gamble that voters are ready to move forward on it, even at some expense to them. She will do so knowing she is handing a populist club to her opponents, and counting on it to backfire on them.

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Go back a few years, change “she” to “he,” and we could be talking about Stéphane Dion. So the question has to be asked: Is a major expansion of Ontario’s transportation infrastructure funded with new taxes or fees, for which the Premier will make the case in a speech next week and in this spring’s budget, fated to become her version of the carbon tax?

It is not just Liberals who should be nervous, because the lesson from Mr. Dion’s unfortunate experience is that if a risk like this doesn’t pay off, it can scare everyone else away for many years to come. So those who think another decade of putting off infrastructure upgrades would be disastrous for the Greater Toronto Area in particular are left to cross their fingers that the differences between both the salesperson and the product are sufficient to counterbalance the similarities.

Ms. Wynne is warmer, more down-to-earth, and most obviously a better communicator than Mr. Dion. And it’s possible, though there is not yet enough available evidence to tell, that her instincts are also superior.

If she is just pushing new revenue streams because she became convinced during a stint as provincial transportation minister that new public transit and roads wouldn’t get built without them – much like Mr. Dion, as environment minister, became seized by climate change – that’s probably not a good balance of policy and politics. But she may be doing a better job than he did at identifying an intersection with public opinion.

A potentially pivotal distinction between a carbon tax and dedicated transit revenues is tangibility. While there were supposed to be practical benefits for some parts of the country (arguably at the expense of others), Mr. Dion was largely asking Canadians to make an altruistic choice to achieve results that would remain abstract for the foreseeable future.

Anyone who tries to get around the GTA knows exactly what problem Ms. Wynne is talking about. The prospect of being able to get from one point to another more quickly should appeal to self-interest; the question is whether lightening wallets is worth it.

In an election likely to happen within the next year, one or both provincial opposition leaders can be expected to make the case that Ontarians don’t need to make that trade-off – that government can find other ways to pay for transportation needs.

Such an argument could find traction with an electorate that justifiably believes the Liberals have spent money too carelessly; never mind that all the frugality in the world wouldn’t turn up tens of billions of dollars for infrastructure. And if Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak or the NDP’s Andrea Horwath won office through that populist stand, it would be at least a few years before they were willing to back down from it.

Setting aside that the emerging transportation debate is helping change the channel from an inherited scandal about cancelled power plants, Ms. Wynne could try to coast by on her considerable charm. Give her credit for not playing it safe. But hope that she picked her spot right, because history suggests it could be a long while before this sort of issue finds another champion.

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