As a campaign slogan, “Sorry, not sorry” was a bust.
As a description of how many Ontario Liberals feel, with their nearly 15 years in power set to end with Friday’s swearing-in of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, it holds up well.
There has been second-guessing among them since their decimation in the province’s June 7 election. Maybe Kathleen Wynne steered them too left; maybe she should have stepped aside before the campaign. At some level, almost all of them know it was time for a change, if only because no party should govern forever.
But there is also a common sense, among those close to Ms. Wynne and many down the ranks, that they have little for which to apologize.
Rarely has there been a bigger gap between how a party perceives itself, and how others see it. In their own eyes, these Liberals were earnest public servants, who built a policy legacy that leaves Ontario a kinder, fairer place, better prepared to compete in the 21st century than it otherwise would be.
In the eyes of voters, 81 per cent of whom cast ballots against them, they proved themselves untrustworthy opportunists, preoccupied with keeping power, unwilling to do anything about everyday challenges outside their downtown Toronto bubble.
But the truth lies somewhere in the middle – even if the simple narratives with which we tell political stories don’t leave much room for that.
The Liberals messed a lot up. Their energy policy, after a decent start with overdue investments in the province’s grid, involved a series of terrible decisions (largely around a botched attempt to build a green-energy sector) that brutally squeezed ratepayers. Their fiscal policy involved deficits, not just after the 2008 recession but also after finally getting back to balance in their final term, that contributed to Ontario’s debt being on pace to soon be triple its level when they took office. Their health policy involved creating a bureaucratic labyrinth that sucked up resources while patients lay in hospital hallways.
As much of a stain as any policy decision: Both premiers during the Liberals’ run contributed to public cynicism, by giving Ontarians the impression they had been misled about their character. Dalton McGuinty presented himself as a Boy Scout, then exited amid scandal because of the politically expedient cancellation of two power plants and subsequent attempt to obscure their costs. Ms. Wynne ran on doing politics differently, then got wrapped up in a pointless ethics controversy around a by-election. Both seemed to lose touch with the people who had sent them to Queen’s Park, insulated by layers of political staff and bureaucrats and enthralled with gurus who led them into controversies on everything from health-record digitalization to hydro privatization.
But the Liberals also got lots right, or right enough that their replacements will let it stand as their legacy. On the environment, they phased out coal-fired power and created one of the largest greenbelts in the world. On education, they implemented full-day kindergarten and eliminated postsecondary tuition for lower-income students, while elementary and secondary reforms helped raise the graduation rate. On the economy, they showed fortitude by taking the political risk to harmonize sales taxes.
And on more abstract matters of leadership, both premiers had better moments. For much of his time in office, Mr. McGuinty displayed both civility and relative desire to reach across the ideological spectrum – charmingly old-fashioned through a 2018 lens. Ms. Wynne’s trailblazing as Ontario’s first female premier and the country’s first openly gay one inspired real excitement, her social conscience was obvious and she displayed the strongest policy grasp of any Ontario premier in memory.
There was so much more, good and bad, over nearly a decade and a half. But even the broad strokes are often too nuanced, when past governments are summarized in a sentence or two.
Hindsight reduced Mike Harris’s PCs to meanness and Bob Rae’s New Democrats to incompetence; the Tories just managed to get past that, the New Democrats still haven’t. Now, the Liberals get to be saddled with duplicitousness and disconnect.
Circumstances might make those labels especially hard to shake. An unusually sweeping defeat after overstaying their welcome has left them without party status, so deeply in debt they’ll be hard-pressed to fund basic operations. The way voters now consume information does not encourage perceptions to be revisited; social media make them easier to reinforce.
The Liberals can hope the flaws of Mr. Ford’s government will create nostalgia for theirs. But that could be a trap, too, if it’s mostly they themselves who see contrasts in their favour, while even voters unenthused about the replacement continue to look back in anger.
Before reintroducing themselves, the Liberals will have to work hard to see themselves through others’ eyes. That should lead to a lot more contrition than they showed during the campaign, even if they needn’t apologize for everything.