Kathleen Wynne has achieved what even many of her fellow Liberals doubted was possible.
A year-and-a-half after inheriting from Dalton McGuinty what seemed to be the flaming wreckage of a decade-old government, Ms. Wynne’s party entered this campaign just hoping to cling to power. Instead, their rookie leader won them back a majority.
Now, having proved herself a remarkably successful campaigner, Ms. Wynne will have to demonstrate what kind of premier she really is. And the big catch is that the way she won back office, by rallying the centre-left (and a whole lot of unions) behind her in opposition to Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives, has set up expectations she is going to have a hard time meeting as she returns to the cold realities of a government deep in deficit.
It may take a little while, for both her and her supporters, for those realities to sink in. Ms. Wynne has vowed to reintroduce promptly the budget the Tories and NDP rejected to kick-start the election, which means she will get to make good on her promises to launch a new provincial pension plan, increase spending on social programs, invest in infrastructure, and try to stimulate economic growth through direct business investment.
The problem for the Liberals is what that budget suggests will need to be done in future ones.
To project eliminating the province’s $11.3-billion deficit by 2017-18, despite actually increasing it in the current fiscal year because of those new expenditures, the Liberals back-loaded austerity both ambitious and ambiguous into the years to follow.
It is extremely improbable that, as some suggested during the campaign, Ms. Wynne will do the same things Mr. Hudak would have done if his party had won. A former social activist fond of pointing out that she got into politics to try to stop the government-slashing agenda of former premier Mike Harris, she is not about to cut 100,000 jobs (or anywhere close to that) from the broader public sector.
But for all her left-leaning inclinations, Ms. Wynne is not known to be dismissive of the dire warnings from Finance officials and others about the state of the province’s books. It is possible, although she has resisted it so far, that she will push back the balanced-budget target slightly. But she does not appear inclined to challenge the notion that it needs to be achieved, and neither is she likely to try to get it done primarily by raising taxes.
So barring economic growth beyond most forecasters’ wildest expectations, Ms. Wynne is soon going to be on a collision course with many of the people who supported her. The public-sector unions that poured millions of dollars into advertising that attacked Mr. Hudak may soon launch campaigns against the Liberals – for attempts at wage restraint, or scaling back certain programs, or moving toward privatizing assets and contracting out services.
Some of the voters who usually cast ballots for the NDP, and this time switched to the Liberals, might be a little easier to keep on board; there are ways, such as the new pension plan, to address their wishes without a major impact on the government’s bottom line. But if Ms. Wynne is serious about her fiscal targets in 2015-16 and beyond, those supporters might nevertheless start to wonder around the time of next year’s budget what they got themselves into.
For Ms. Wynne’s left-of-centre backers, some disappointment down the road might still be well worth it to have kept Mr. Hudak from office. The Premier herself no doubt feels the same way, believing she can go about addressing the province’s challenges more compassionately than her rival would have – and relishing the opportunity to spend four years putting her stamp on her office, which is more than even she probably expected.
If she is able to gather the same coalition of voters behind her the next time Ontarians go to the polls, though, it will be an even more astounding accomplishment than it was this time.