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Kathleen Wynne makes her entrance before her speech. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Kathleen Wynne makes her entrance before her speech. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

For Ontario Liberals, the convention speeches mattered Add to ...

The received wisdom is that convention speeches don’t matter much, and often they really don’t. But on Saturday, as a couple thousand Liberals gathered to choose Ontario’s new premier, perhaps they mattered just a little bit – if only because of how perfectly they encapsulated the choice with which delegates were faced.

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From Sandra Pupatello, who entered the convention as the frontrunner, there was a professional but impersonal and surprisingly dispassionate argument for why electing her would be the smart choice for a party that wants to win the next election. From Kathleen Wynne, there was a warm and confident and distinctly human appeal to Liberals’ better angels – to embrace their social consciences, to be optimistic, and most boldly to set aside any qualms they might have about an openly gay premier.

It was an appeal to the head, against an appeal to the heart. And Liberals, who have grown worried that their party has lost its way while clinging to power, went with the choice that would make them feel better about themselves when they left the arena on Saturday night.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that. Ms. Wynne won, in large part, because she was able to convince three out of four lower-ranking candidates to support her. For at least one of them, Charles Sousa, her strongest appeal was probably that she would be able to avoid a spring election. For all of them, superior strategic outreach and relationship-building throughout the campaign gave her an edge.

But delegated conventions are inherently emotional events, and even some supporters of Ms. Pupatello conceded there was something different in the air on Ms. Wynne’s side of the floor.

Ms. Wynne’s supporters were younger and louder and seemed less like they were going through the motions. As her momentum grew, from her speech through her surprisingly strong first-ballot result and then the defections to her camp, there was a sense of energy and enthusiasm that seemed to be fuelled by the prospect of making history, and returning its party to the values that had drawn them to it, and maybe wresting some control away from the Liberal establishment that Ms. Pupatello seemed more to represent.

As infectious as these emotions may have been within the slightly surreal confines of the convention, it remains a long shot that they’ll translate when the Liberals get back out into the real world. Among other things, Ms. Wynne will shortly be charged with tackling what is still a very daunting provincial deficit, contending with the day-to-day grind of a minority legislature, schlepping baggage accumulated during more than nine years in power, and dealing with the unions that spent the day angrily protesting outside the arena’s doors.

That’s an awful lot to ask of a rookie premier, and most Ontarians won’t much care how much can-do spirit she has if she stumbles out of the gate.

Ms. Wynne, who has something of a technocratic streak to go with her activist roots, surely understands all that. “Believe it or not, this was the easy part,” she correctly advised her supporters during her victory speech.

But that other speech, the one that began the day, was the one they’ll be remembering for a while. And if they were ever going to come together and at least try to tackle the really hard stuff, it might have been the one they needed to hear.

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