Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne says she won’t be premier after next week’s Ontario election, conceding Saturday morning that her party won’t hold onto power after 15 years in office.
With her defeat now unavoidable, Ms. Wynne is looking to protect her party’s future and urged voters to elect as many Liberal legislators as possible to prevent Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives or Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats from forming a majority government on June 7. She called the two parties “too extreme” for Ontario.
“I’m trying to call it the way I see it,” said Ms. Wynne during a campaign stop at a school in eastern Toronto. “If your concern is that you’ll elect me or a Liberal government, that’s not going to happen.”
Ms. Wynne’s announcement of her government’s defeat, days before polls open, is unprecedented in Ontario’s political history and marks the latest shift in an unpredictable campaign. Her unusual admission might help Liberal candidates win in some closely-contested ridings but it comes at a time when the party is facing an existential threat, according to strategists.
In a number of polls, Ms. Wynne’s Liberals have appeared on the verge of a catastrophic loss where her party could lose official status. Over the course of the nearly month-long campaign, Ms. Horwath’s New Democrats have surged in support from third place, effectively tying with Mr. Ford’s Tories.
“I don’t know who voters will choose but I am pretty sure that it won’t be me. After Thursday, I will no longer be Ontario’s Premier. And I’m OK with that,” said Ms. Wynne, her voice breaking and holding back tears.
The announcement sent a shock throughout the Liberal campaign. Some candidates and their campaigners were baffled and angered by Ms. Wynne’s decision to effectively concede the election with only five days to go, according to one Liberal Party source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the party. The move was incomprehensible, he added.
The Liberal leader held a conference call with her candidates on Saturday morning, however most Liberals learned of her move when her campaign event appeared on television. Ms. Wynne said she had been discussing the announcement with her inner-circle for a number of days. In the hours after her announcement, the Liberals unveiled polished new advertising with the message that its candidate can deprive Mr. Ford or Ms. Horwath of a majority.
“By voting Liberal you can keep Doug Ford and the NDP from having a blank cheque,” Ms. Wynne said.
That message could resonate in the riding of Etobicoke Centre, where Liberal incumbent Yvan Baker is in a tight race with a Tory challenger, Kinga Surma. After learning of Ms. Wynne’s announcement through social media, Mr. Baker told people in his riding that the Liberal leader wanted them to contrast the local candidates, and not compare Ms. Wynne to Mr. Ford.
“I imagine that what the premier did today was very difficult,” he said. “But my work isn’t done, I’ve been talking about what I’ve done for the last four years, but there’s a lot more I want to do.” Ms. Wynne’s announcement had been well received, he added.
The Liberal leader’s public admission that she won’t be the premier after the election allows the party to go on the offensive, with new advertising and a new message as they look to salvage as many seats as possible, said a Liberal strategist, who was not authorized to speak to media.
Some strategists said the move could help convince voters to support Liberals. “I’m not surprised by this, it’s grounded in the reality of the immediate moment, but it’s an unusual move,” said John Duffy, an informal advisor to the Liberal campaign who served on Ms. Wynne’s 2014 campaign team.
“In effect it says to Ontarians, you’re going to get the change you so obviously want, you’ll get a new government and it won’t be a Kathleen Wynne Liberal government, but there are lots of aspects of what comes next that you might not want.”
The Liberal leader said she will continue campaigning until June 7, however, she did not say whether she’d stay on as party leader if she is re-elected in her riding.
Responding to Ms. Wynne’s announcement, Mr. Ford dismissed the Liberal leader’s record as “disastrous” and said his party was ready to form government. “Under the Liberals, your hydro rates have more than doubled, 300,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost and Ontario’s debt has doubled, all while a parade of Liberal friends and insiders got rich,” Mr. Ford said in a statement.
The Tories sent emails to supporters on Saturday evening warning that Ms. Wynne’s Liberals could now form a coalition with the NDP. However, the New Democrats said Ms. Wynne’s move was a “dangerous game” and dismissed her call for a minority government.
“Kathleen Wynne has abandoned the fight against Doug Ford cuts. And her request today for a minority government is a demand that she be allowed to continue to hold the power at Queen’s Park, something voters have already rejected,” Ms. Horwath said in a statement.
Henry Jacek, political science professor at McMaster University, said that many Liberal voters will now see Ms. Wynne’s move as permission for them to vote NDP. “It could be a catastrophic result for the Liberals,” he cautioned.
The announcement was a difficult and emotional moment for Ms. Wynne, who has been a highly-practiced leader since she became Ontario’s premier in February 2013. In recent years her personal approval rating has plummeted nearly to the single digits and she has consistently ranked as the country’s least popular premier.
Ms. Wynne first entered politics as a school trustee in 2000. The 65-year-old politician was Ontario’s first female premier and the first openly LGBT premier in Canada. While she entered the campaign with the hope that she could reverse the grim polls, on Saturday she returned to a schoolyard for one of her most difficult moments as a political leader.
Standing in front of a playground at a Toronto school near her riding, with children playing in the background, the Liberal leader paused during her remarks and pointed at the children as a symbol of her political career, which she expects to end next week. Being premier, she said, “it’s about them, it’s about their futures, it’s about the kind of province they are going to live in,” she said.