It turned into more of a defining moment than Kathleen Wynne had really been aiming for.
The Premier decided weeks ago that she wanted to replace Paul Godfrey as chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. He was too enthusiastic about a Toronto casino; too antagonistic toward the horse-racing industry; his style was not a good fit with hers. She hoped to make it a smooth exit, with Mr. Godfrey ostensibly leaving voluntarily or by mutual agreement.
When The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that Ms. Wynne’s Liberals were plotting this transition, she felt compelled to move faster than she wanted. She tried to get Mr. Godfrey to meet with Finance Minister Charles Sousa at the start of the week. Mr. Godfrey, livid at learning about his future from the newspaper, declined. When he finally met with Mr. Sousa on Thursday, he rejected the idea that he resign, forcing the government to fire him.
Thus we wound up with some of the best political theatre since Ms. Wynne took office, courtesy of an axe-grinding press conference at which Mr. Godfrey implied that he had been treated shabbily, that Ms. Wynne had known all along about policies to which she now claimed to object, that she was on a different page from her treasurer. And by the way, OLG’s entire board of directors was quitting in protest.
This was all very much against brand for a Premier who’s usually all about consensus. So there is some irony in the likelihood that, purely in terms of politics, it actually worked out rather nicely.
Among Ms. Wynne’s biggest challenges is to put distance between herself and her predecessor without alienating her party’s base. Never has she looked more like her own premier than when she outright fired an appointee of Dalton McGuinty’s who was insufficiently willing to adjust to her expectations. And fortuitously, very few people who vote Liberal or would consider doing so will be offended that Mr. Godfrey – a wheeling and dealing Tory businessman with a closet full of pinstriped suits – was tossed overboard.
Conversely, the fact that the most prominent advocate of a Toronto casino was jettisoned on the same day it became clear that Ms. Wynne had helped thwart any prospect that one will be built (by refusing to offer Toronto’s municipal government enough financial incentive) undoubtedly played well with a certain type of left-of-centre urbanite. That will improve the Liberals’ prospects in a handful of NDP-held downtown ridings, which represent their best chance of seat gains in the next election.
So for all that Liberals seemed shell-shocked on Thursday night, they may yet come to celebrate the impact on their fortunes. But what is a little cloudier is the impact on the province they’re running.
Government officials insist the OLG “modernization” that’s eventually supposed to bring in an extra $1.3-billion annually – a key component of the province’s plan to get out of deficit – continues apace. But by softening some of its rougher edges, most notably moving away from the previous plan to stop propping up the horse-racing industry, Ms. Wynne will be dipping into some of those revenues.
Perhaps more important is the message sent to some of the people on whom the government is counting to make “modernization” a reality. Much of the plan hinges on reducing costs by getting private companies to take over day-to-day operations of casinos, the provincial lottery and a foray into online gambling. While procurement processes are already well under way, there’s a danger investors will be spooked by the instability reflected by this week’s firing and mass exodus.
For all that this week saw the Premier put her stamp on her government, there is now a glaring need for her to articulate just where she thinks one of the most fraught files she inherited goes from here. It’s obvious she does not quite share the vision for the gambling industry Mr. McGuinty embraced, and that is enough to satisfy some key constituencies. But what remains is for her to explain, clearly and convincingly, what her vision for it is.
The defining moment, as it pertains to the policy if not the politics, is not over just yet.