One of the top candidates for the Ontario Liberal leadership is set to try to take advantage of the growing disaffection within her party.
Kathleen Wynne was expected to officially enter the race to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty on Thursday; it now appears her announcement has been pushed back until early next week. But with the Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister having locked up backroom veteran Tom Allison as her campaign manager, and in the midst of lining up caucus and party support, her candidacy is a foregone conclusion around Queen’s Park.
A hotter topic of speculation among provincial Liberals is how much Ms. Wynne is prepared to run against the record of her own government.
Likely to be the most overtly left-of-centre of the contenders for her party’s top job, she has an opportunity to capitalize on complaints that Mr. McGuinty shifted too far to the right after the last election. As someone who has never been all that tight with the Premier’s inner circle, she could similarly provide an outlet for Liberals who believe central control led the government astray.
Ms. Wynne has recently sent at least a couple of public signals on these fronts. Following September’s pivotal by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo, she agreed with a radio interviewer that the continuing labour fight with teachers played a role in her party’s dismal third-place finish, saying the Liberals must “take some lessons.” And shortly after Mr. McGuinty’s surprise resignation, she acknowledged “discomfort” with the prorogation of the legislature.
In light of recent developments, there will be pressure on Ms. Wynne to be more blunt during the leadership race. Mr. McGuinty’s concession this week that the government took too aggressive an approach toward the teachers’ unions only further infuriated caucus members who objected to that strategy in the first place. Even before that, antipathy toward powerful party operatives seen to have been calling the shots had begun to boil over.
In positioning herself as quasi-outsider candidate, however, Ms. Wynne will be walking a fine line – and not just because of the challenge of convincing the public that someone who long sat at the cabinet table can credibly argue for a change in direction.
The delegated-convention model of leadership selection, which the provincial Liberals continue to use even as their federal cousins abandon it, tends to make life difficult for polarizing candidates. If Ms. Wynne antagonizes enough party elites, it could be difficult for her to win second- or third-choice support on multiple ballots.
If the race emerges as a divisive battle between Ms. Wynne on the relative left and former economic development minister Sandra Pupatello on the relative right, it’s also easy to envision a compromise candidate – Health Minister Deb Matthews, if she runs, or perhaps Children and Youth Services Minister Eric Hoskins – coming up the middle.
At the same time, there’s always a chance that another candidate will find success giving voice to party anxieties in a different way.
On Wednesday, former cabinet minister John Wilkinson told The Globe and Mail that he’s considering a leadership bid of his own. If so, he could represent rural and small-town Liberals who believe the government has left them behind.
A strong retail politician who narrowly lost his Southwestern Ontario seat last election amid protests over Mr. McGuinty’s wind-energy strategy, Mr. Wilkinson is well-positioned to address that perception.
Ms. Wynne, an urban liberal, could be cast as someone who would only accelerate the Liberals’ retreat into Toronto and its suburbs.
But to many of those Toronto-area Liberals who currently make up their party’s core, Ms. Wynne is going to look awfully good. For those who believe they’ve lost their way during their efforts to impose an austerity agenda, she’ll offer the potential of returning to the good old days, when they were advancing policies they actually believed in.
What she’ll have to decide is how directly to deliver that message, without scaring away Liberals who fear looking like they’re out of touch with the rest of the province, or aren’t quite sure how much distance they want to put between themselves and their leader of the past 16 years.