It is a dangerous thing for a politician these days, daring to think big. And on the face of it, it should be political suicide to ask voters to do likewise – to suggest that even as governments at all levels are mired in scandal, they should be entrusted to expand their ambitions and their scope.
That should be especially true for a premier leading a government that has been in power for more than a decade, and can scarcely get through a week without some reminder of past mistakes.
And yet here is Kathleen Wynne, seriously considering asking Ontarians to take not just one big leap of faith in her ability to look after their long-term interests, but two at once.
In the past 10 days, Ms. Wynne has doubled down both on her commitment to campaign on the promise of new taxes or tolls to fund public transit, and on her willingness to create a new provincial pension to supplement the federal one. Both of those signals have been sent in the immediate aftermath of an Auditor-General’s report that revealed gross excesses at the public utility Ontario Power Generation, the latest story to contribute to skepticism about governments’ ability to guard public dollars.
That’s governments, plural, because a rash of scandals at all levels – combined, arguably, with the erosion of civility in public discourse and a host of other factors – has led to a cynicism about politicians that goes beyond the usual run-of-the-mill sort. As members of Ontario’s opposition parties will attest, even if you’re campaigning for a change in government, at this point there’s enough mistrust that even a party that would be coming in with a relatively clean slate would be loath to promise the sort of stuff with which Ms. Wynne is flirting.
Consider the case of the provincial NDP. The party that once displayed unshakeable faith in the power of government has, under the leadership of Andrea Horwath, become one that attacks the Liberals for wanting to collect money for new transit lines, while trumpeting lower auto-insurance rates and a few other pocketbook policies.
The calculus behind the New Democrats’ policy approach says much about where we are at, or at least where they perceive us to be. Ontarians, they believe, have little appetite for grand new projects or confidence in governments’ ability to execute them. So Ms. Horwath is championing things that seem relatively easy to achieve at little cost, such as the lower insurance rates or a cap on salaries of public-sector executives, that would bring instant (if limited) gratification.
The gratification Ms. Wynne is offering, by contrast, would at best be delayed. She wants Ontarians to start spending now on transit lines that might improve their lives a decade down the road. And enjoying the fruits of that provincial pension plan taking money off their paycheques would for most people require an even longer wait.
It perhaps requires a degree of desperation to be willing to make such pitches. True, Ms. Wynne’s advisers believe her likeability affords her a unique ability to sell voters on playing the long game. But they also know that failing to carve out a distinct agenda from her predecessor Dalton McGuinty would be a death sentence, which is why they spent much of 2013 casting about for bold ideas to differentiate her.
Following through on these particular ones – especially the separate pension plan, which might well be rejected on its own merits – could easily blow up in her face. Consequently, not having actually fleshed out these ideas just yet, Ms. Wynne may yet lose her nerve.
Still, there is something admirable about the fact that she’s at least trying to think long-term, in a province with enough economic and demographic challenges that it can’t afford to worry only about the here and now. Setting aside whether she’s able to overcome the cynicism, or deserves to, at least she might not surrender to it.