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Premier Kathleen Wynne’s campaign team made it clear higher taxes to pay for transportation was a tough sell. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s campaign team made it clear higher taxes to pay for transportation was a tough sell. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Wynne’s transit tax climb-down about much more than appeasing the NDP Add to ...

It was widely interpreted as a concession to New Democrats, in hope of securing their support for this spring’s budget.

But Kathleen Wynne’s announcement this week that she would not proceed with new sales, gasoline or personal taxes to fund public transit wasn’t aimed so much at preventing an election, as it was at giving her Liberals a fighting chance if that campaign comes to pass.

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It cannot have been easy for the Premier, the epic climb-down from pretty much the first position she staked out when she took office a little over a year ago. But if you’ve followed Ontario politics recently, it was a familiar sight – a leader deliberately staking out a high-risk position to prove his or her boldness, only to back away just before people really started paying attention.

Last month, it was Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak conceding he would not campaign on “right-to-work” legislation. Mr. Hudak had been championing an end to the Rand Formula since shortly after the last election, as part of an effort to show himself to be a more principled conservative than he first appeared. But as the next election drew closer, and after dissent had blown out into the open, he reluctantly succumbed to pressure from fellow Tories not to gamble their chance at power on all-out war with organized labour.

Ms. Wynne, like her PC counterpart, went out on a limb because of a combination of personal conviction and political imperative; her previous stint as transportation minister left her convinced Ontario needed to do something drastic about its gridlock, and she wanted to set herself apart from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty. For a brief time, Liberals seemed reasonably united behind this gambit. But that didn’t last long.

Ms. Wynne had pronounced her enthusiasm for new “revenue streams” before appointing her campaign team for the next election. And that team promptly made little secret, within Liberal circles, of its distaste for running on any such thing. Its opinion research suggested the government might be able to sell Ontarians on taking money off their paycheques for a new provincial pension plan, an issue it has since adopted; asking people to pay a lot more for transportation, not so much.

Ms. Wynne, though, did not give up easily. While punting the specifics to a couple of panels – evidence, in retrospect, of what was happening behind the scenes – she publicly insisted through the end of 2013 that her commitment hadn’t wavered.

That she finally caved in – which is unmistakably what happened, notwithstanding Liberal claims that through some clever accounting they’ll be able to come up with the funds they need to meet their transportation ambitions – is a recognition that she initially underestimated the challenges of selling such a policy. The benefits were too ambiguous; the skepticism about the government’s ability to spend dollars efficiently was too high; the perception that the whole province was being asked to pay for shiny new things for the Toronto area was too prevalent.

Like Mr. Hudak’s decision, it was also a reflection of an apparent logjam in public support that has all three provincial parties believing they can compete for power, and wary of big risks. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has all but eschewed policy altogether, and doesn’t seem to be suffering for it; that makes it harder for others to ask Ontarians to do things that might actually be difficult.

There is another school of thought that boldness is its own reward – that when trying to win over an electorate that doesn’t pay terribly close attention to policy, having strong and principled views about what your province needs to do is as at least as important as what those views actually are.

For a time, it appeared, that school could count both Ms. Wynne and Mr. Hudak among its members. But having the courage of their convictions was one thing; getting their respective parties to share them, as a date with voters loomed, proved another.

 

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