Kathleen Wynne won’t speak Dalton McGuinty’s name. But she will take credit for his policies.
From the time that she took office last year, the Ontario Premier has sought to position her replacement of Dalton McGuinty not just as a change in leadership, but as a full-scale change of government. And as the full breadth of the mess he left behind has become evident, she has gone out of her way to avoid talking about her predecessor at all – referring to the “former premier” when she has to, which is clearly more frequently than she would like.
The problem, for Ms. Wynne, is that her thin record doesn’t leave her with enough voter-friendly achievements heading into a likely spring election. So even as she tries to disown the unseemly side of Mr. McGuinty’s legacy, she is laying claim to the more saleable parts.
The latest evidence of this contradiction came on Monday, when the Premier’s office circulated a list of “pocketbook initiatives making life in Ontario more affordable.”
The items Ms. Wynne could legitimately claim as her own included a new pension plan still in the conceptual stage, a reduction to auto-insurance rates borrowed from the NDP, consumer protection on wireless contracts and an increase to the minimum wage. To make this selection seem less meagre, it was supplemented by a pile of Mr. McGuinty’s measures – a 10-per-cent rebate on energy bills, a 30-per-cent tuition grant for families with income under $160,000, and lower prices for generic drugs.
Although it’s unlikely any of these policies will be central to the Liberals’ re-election pitch, the release offered a sneak preview of how they will try to defend against opposition criticism that their policies are putting the squeeze on middle-income voters. And Ms. Wynne has already signalled that when she wants to go on offence, she will hold up full-day kindergarten – Mr. McGuinty’s legacy project – as something that would be jeopardized by a Progressive Conservative government.
Then there is the subtler matter of the province’s finances. Ms. Wynne’s best argument, when accused of lacking a plan to get the province back to balanced budgets, is that the government has repeatedly bested its deficit-reduction targets. But it has done so in large part because shortly before leaving office Mr. McGuinty achieved short-term wage restraint by trampling over collective-bargaining rights, which Ms. Wynne has openly signalled she thought was a bad idea.
That Ms. Wynne has a complicated relationship with her predecessor is hardly surprising; after all, he is responsible both for her government’s current mandate and for the uphill battle it faces in pursuing another one. And with Ms. Wynne having sat at Mr. McGuinty’s cabinet table for six years, her opponents won’t let her run away from the gas-plants scandal and other baggage. So if she’s going to own the bad, she might as well also try to own the good.
But there is only so much the Premier can have it both ways, without looking either disingenuous or as though she’s having an identity crisis. It is a difficult balance she’s trying to strike, and she hasn’t found it just yet.
Follow Adam Radwanski on Twitter: @aradwanski