For three weeks, it was easy to overlook that Kathleen Wynne became Ontario’s Premier with a minimal policy mandate, emerging triumphant from a truncated leadership race that mostly dodged the tough questions about Ontario’s fiscal and economic troubles.
On Tuesday, in a Speech from the Throne that resembled a group hug more than a vision statement, it showed signs of catching up with her.
To the extent that the text carved out a different path from that of her predecessor, it was mostly in style. Ms. Wynne aims to be more open and inclusive, to listen to others’ ideas rather than ram her own down Ontarians’ throats, and that theme was driven home again and again in commitments to work more co-operatively with everyone from opposition parties to public sector unions. A vow to consult communities “from the beginning if there is going to be a gas plant or a casino or a wind plant or a quarry in their hometown” was something of a dig at Dalton McGuinty’s disinclination to do likewise.
On a few fronts, there were notable policy shifts as well. Ms. Wynne appears to be more passionate about upgrading the province’s lacklustre transportation infrastructure, and willing to consider road tolls to do so. She is also less reluctant about collecting more corporate tax revenue (possibly by doing away with existing credits) and more eager to make life better for social-assistance recipients – issues that could not only help her win support from the third party NDP, but also seem to fit her own value system.
But on the biggest issues, the ones that will inevitably consume much of her attention, her policies remain ambiguous.
While recommitting to both the 2017-18 deadline for eliminating the provincial deficit and a leadership campaign promise to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, she offered little indication of what cost-cutting will look like. An oddly brief section on health-care policy skimmed over the all-encompassing question of how the system will be made more sustainable, other than an expansion of home care and promotion of healthier living. Although job creation, and specifically youth employment, got more attention, it was mostly rhetorical, with only marginal commitments such as a $50-million contribution to a federal-provincial venture capital fund.
It all gave the impression of a new Premier who is still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her office – which, in the circumstances, is understandable.
The promise to return the legislature quickly helped Ms. Wynne win over her fellow Liberals, who were worried about further backlash against them if prorogation continued. But it also led to a mad scramble after her victory.
An overhauled Premier’s office is only just taking shape, many jobs are still not filled or are being held temporarily. Ministers’ offices are in at least as much flux, with a new cabinet – including 10 rookies – appointed only last week. Many of the people who helped craft the agenda, or usually would, are still just finding their way around.
If she had come to office in a general election, Ms. Wynne would have had not just more time, but also a relatively comprehensive platform to draw from during her transitional phase. In this case, she has only the sorts of low-risk promises offered during a contest in which the main objective was not to offend too many fellow travellers.
On top of that, the reality of minority government is being able to do only as much as the opposition will permit – which in this case is really just the New Democrats, since the Progressive Conservatives have no intention of propping up the Liberals regardless. Conversations on that front seem to still be in the exploratory stage, so there are only so many limbs she can rush out on.
If this Throne Speech was “vague in the extreme,” as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath aptly put it, that can be chalked up in part to it being a placeholder. Such texts being notoriously vague to begin with, the much better test will come with the spring budget.
Still, it was hard not to notice at the press conference after Lieutenant-Governor David Onley’s reading that Ms. Wynne, hedging and frequently stumbling over words, seemed decidedly less relaxed and confident than in her first appearances as her party’s new leader.
Perhaps she was just having a bad day. Or maybe the gravity of what she’s up against, and what will be needed from her in the next couple of months, had just caught up with her.