Premier Kathleen Wynne is promising to win back Ontarians’ trust amid a string of ethics scandals, anger over high electricity prices and collapsing approval ratings.
In a contrite and often emotional speech to her Liberal party’s annual general meeting in Ottawa Saturday, Ms. Wynne admitted that the “polling numbers and the pundits” say “many people in Ontario are not happy with me right now.”
“People look at me and many of them think: ‘She’s not who we thought she was. She’s become a typical politician. She’ll do anything to win,’” she said in the lunch-hour address. “Frankly, I think I sometimes have given them reason to think that.”
The Premier did not say what, exactly, she believed had led voters to question her motives. But the speech comes in the wake of a months-long conflagration over cash-for-access fundraising and less than three weeks after two Liberal operatives, including Ms. Wynne’s former deputy chief of staff, were charged with Election Act offences for allegedly attempting to bribe a candidate in a by-election last year.
Standing alone without a podium in front of the cavernous convention hall, Ms. Wynne also acknowledged that she failed to grasp how much the province’s high hydro rates were hurting Ontarians. She belatedly tried to deal with the problem in September, with a hastily-announced eight per cent subsidy for residential electricity bills.
The Premier said Saturday that more relief will be coming, but did not specify what it will be.
“Our government made a mistake. It was my mistake. And I’m going to do my best to fix it,” she said. “In the weeks and the months ahead, we are going to find more ways to lower rates and reduce the burden on consumers.”
She conceded “I have some work to do to prove that I am who I have always been” and vowed to do a better job understanding voters’ concerns.
“I will do my very best to listen, to respond, to lead, and to serve you and the people of Ontario better,” she said. “I will be right there with you: As premier, as leader, I’ll be there with you as Kathleen, a proud mother and grandmother.”
At one point, the normally unflappable Ms. Wynne appeared to be holding back tears as the 800 party faithful leaped to their feet to give her a standing ovation.
The 25-minute speech seemed designed to recapture the spirit of Ms. Wynne’s accession to the premiership nearly four years ago.
At the time, the Liberals were reeling from the fallout over the billion-dollar cancellations of two gas-fired power plants and a perception the party was purely cynical and self-interested. Ms. Wynne used a mix of abject apologies for the gas-plants and rhetoric about Liberal values to give the party a sense of purpose and turn around poor poll numbers to win a legislative majority in 2014.
On Saturday, her speech was peppered with references to “fairness and inclusion” and “our commitment to leave no one behind.”
Speaking with reporters afterward, she said the language was also partly motivated by fear that the same disaffection that carried Donald Trump to power in the United States could move north.
“The conversation since the American election has very much been about people being left behind. So when I talk about that, yeah, I’m making a connection there,” she said.
Ms. Wynne was careful, however, not to specify why exactly she believed voters have begun to see her as purely interested in winning elections and holding on to power.
“I have done my level best to address the issues that I see in the province and to implement the plan that I ran on. But it’s an imperfect process. Politics, like life, is imperfect,” she said. “What I’m saying today is that I recognize that I have not perfectly served the people of Ontario.”
The Liberals trail the opposition Tories, often by double-digits, in several polls and last month, Ms. Wynne’s approval rating fell to just 14 per cent in a Forum survey.
The Premier, however, has vowed to stay on and fight the 2018 election. She benefits from a unified caucus and a party that has not shown any serious rifts under her leadership. And despite several of her cabinet ministers harbouring leadership ambitions – most prominently Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi – none have organized any attempt to wrest power from her.
Candid conversations at the AGM with Liberals from across the party’s many factions revealed a widespread consensus that no one will pressure Ms. Wynne to leave.
The Premier got a much-needed boost Thursday when Nathalie Des Rosiers kept Ottawa-Vanier, the site of the convention, in Liberal hands. Despite a vigorous campaign by former ombudsman André Marin, who ran for the Tories, the Liberals kept the long-time fief with a nearly 20 per cent margin.
An emboldened Ms. Wynne concluded her speech Saturday with a promise to defy predictions and storm to re-election.
“The pundits can count us out. The opposition can count us out. But I’m going to count on you – this time and every time,” she said. “And you can count on me.”Report Typo/Error