If Ontarians aren't sure what Kathleen Wynne stands for after nearly five years as Premier, she says they should look forward to Jan. 1. She certainly is.
While the Premier faces a tough re-election battle in 2018, Ms. Wynne told The Globe and Mail in a year-end interview that she's ready to celebrate on New Year's Day when two significant changes brought forward by her government take effect in Ontario. On that day, minimum wage in the province will jump to $14 an hour and the four million Ontarians under the age of 25 will get access to free prescription drugs under a new pharmacare program known as OHIP plus.
The two initiatives, too radical for some of Ms. Wynne's opponents and too timid for some of her friends, are central to the Premier's philosophy of government. "I live my political life in the activist centre. I've said that all along. I think that there is a lot government can do, but government can't do everything," Ms. Wynne said from her corner office at Queen's Park.
Story continues below advertisement
While polling has consistently shown Ms. Wynne to be the country's least popular premier over the past year, there's a spring in her step after a year of the type of activist government she says makes her most comfortable. Despite being in power for nearly 14 years, Ontario's Liberals had a busy 2017 in which they took aim at hydro bills, an overheated housing market, labour reforms, police oversight, ticket bots, marijuana and municipal planning. They also balanced the budget and cut small-business taxes.
Despite all the new government programs, many Ontarians will start to feel those changes most acutely in the new year after getting a pay raise and access to free drugs. "There will be big changes for people on Jan. 1," she said.
"I'm incredibly proud of the work that we've done and the changes that we've seen here and I'm quite prepared to defend those," Ms. Wynne said as she prepares for an election that is expected in June. Ontario's Liberals have trailed the Progressive Conservatives in most polls for the past year and Ms. Wynne will lose two of her most capable lieutenants next year as Liz Sandals and Deb Matthews decided not to run again.
While Ms. Wynne faced questions earlier in the year about whether she would resign and let a more popular Liberal carry the party's banner, the Premier has made it clear that she doesn't intend to step aside. Unlike the 2014 election, which Ms. Wynne won less than a year after taking over as Premier, she said the 2018 campaign will be the first time she is running on her own record and not that of a predecessor.
That's a challenge she said she's more capable of confronting during her second campaign in the top job. "I feel more confident in our ability to put in place supports for people, to change the province in a way that will make it fairer and provide more opportunity for people," she said.
Looking to topple Ms. Wynne, PC Leader Patrick Brown released his party's electoral blueprint in late November. Dubbed the "People's Guarantee," the platform pledged to keep most of the Premier's accomplishments in place. The biggest change would dump Ontario's cap-and-trade system and replace it with a carbon tax, which Mr. Brown would use to fund income taxes cuts.
While Mr. Brown has promised to reduce government spending by 2 per cent over his first four years in office, Ms. Wynne has said that the conservative leader would "gut health care and education." The Tories have said that they expect to find the savings by reducing government waste.
Story continues below advertisement
Despite an often repeated charge from some New Democrats that Ms. Wynne has only stolen and watered down many of their best ideas, the Premier dismissed the threat of the NDP in 2018 and said that the party relies too heavily on government to solve all problems.
Following a year when Ontario posted some of the most robust economic growth in the G7, a number of challenges face the province in 2018, none larger than the continuing renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement and fears the vital trade pact could be torn up by U.S. President Donald Trump. A number of proposals put forward by American negotiators in recent months, judged unacceptable by Canada and Mexico, have left a cloud over the talks.
While Ms. Wynne vowed to continue meeting with U.S. governors and talk publicly about the merits of free trade, she admitted to growing worry about NAFTA's future. "I'm less optimistic than I was a few months ago, that's for sure. What's happening at the table, with these very untenable proposals by the United States, has made it feel less like we'll get there," she said.