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Canada ‘Hard to watch’: former premier Kathleen Wynne reflects on life in Doug Ford’s Ontario

Ontario Liberal MPP Kathleen Wynne is seen as the legislature sits inside Queen's Park in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2018.

COLE BURSTON

Kathleen Wynne made a commitment to herself: show up to the Ontario Legislature at least two days a week.

It may not sound like much, especially since the provincial House doesn’t even sit on Fridays, but the former Ontario premier notes she works in her constituency on other days.

When she’s at Queen’s Park, Ms. Wynne has a front-row seat – albeit, from the corner – to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in action. And a lot of his moves involve undoing what the Liberals did over the past 15 years, at warp speed.

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“It’s hard to watch, that’s for sure. It’s really hard to watch,” Ms. Wynne said recently over green tea at a café in her Toronto riding.

“I don’t like watching what are, in my opinion, bad decisions. I don’t like that at all, and it worries me enormously.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Ms. Wynne, 65, faces the reality of her party’s situation. She led the Liberals to a historic defeat in last June’s election, keeping only seven seats in the legislature – one shy of official-party status.

One of those seats belongs to Ms. Wynne herself.

The MPP for Don Valley West, which she has represented since 2003, has not been able to slip away quietly, as most leaders who are defeated do. And she does not have the luxury of resigning a rare Liberal seat, at least not yet, while her party rebuilds after a crushing loss.

“My intention is to represent my constituents and I will continue to do that,” she said, when asked if she’ll serve her entire term.

Defiant, yet almost in tears over her party’s loss, Ms. Wynne at once defends her government’s record while acknowledging that her personal unpopularity caused her to take the extraordinary step of announcing days before the June election that she would not win.

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“I tear up just thinking about it,” she said. “We had 124 great candidates, and they were working their hearts out, and their teams were working so hard. And I hated to disappoint them.”

In the end, she tried to salvage as many seats as she could. “I needed to get out of the way,” she said, “because I believed that we could have even had a worse result.”

Still, Ms. Wynne doesn’t regret leading the Liberals into the June election.

“I felt it was my responsibility to take my lumps, let whatever was going to happen, happen,” she said. “How would that have been fair for a new leader to be carrying all the baggage that I had?”

Now, she is back in the legislature, watching as her work is undone. When asked which of the government’s decisions has concerned her the most, Ms. Wynne answers dryly: “It’s hard to choose.”

She settles on the cancellation of the cap-and-trade program, calling it “the most fundamentally disturbing” for a government that prides itself on its business acumen.

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“The reason we put cap-and-trade in place is because it does foster that kind of economic activity. It’s why I believe in it more than I believe in the carbon tax,” she said.

The Ford government, she argues, has no vision. “They will tell you they want to balance the budget, but balancing the budget doesn’t inherently mean you’re building anything,” she said. Mr. Ford’s government is different, she said, than that of former PC premier Mike Harris, who was in power from 1995 until 2002. “It’s less predictable and, therefore, more dangerous than what happened with Harris,” she said.

Ms. Wynne still faces her own tough questions, even out of government. She’ll likely be called to testify at a select committee struck by the PCs to investigate her government’s handling of the province’s finances, including a well-known dispute with the Auditor-General.

Ms. Wynne doesn’t believe, for example, that the deficit is $15-billion as the Tories say.

“They’re using a number that they’ve kind of cobbled together as a cover for cutting programs and cutting supports,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Wynne said her past experience in government helps her hold the PCs to account. She said she meets people across the province who regularly thank her for her government’s work, including raising the minimum wage to $14 an hour.

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As her party looks to rebuild, Ms. Wynne said she plans on helping out – but only from the sidelines.

“I don’t think there’s any shame in having done what you believe in, it not working out and then being part of the analysis of what didn’t go well,” she said.

“To me, that’s what life is about. We don’t succeed at everything.”

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