For nearly the first time since she won a majority government three years ago, Kathleen Wynne is in her comfort zone.
The Ontario Premier's re-embrace of her left-of-centre activist roots, culminating in this week's announcement of new labour provisions highlighted by a $15 minimum wage, may not be enough to keep her in office past next year's election. As her Liberals were reminded this week in a northern by-election in which their candidate came third, their government is too tired and scandal-plagued for re-election to be anything but an uphill battle.
But with a shift at once both politically cynical and true to herself, Ms. Wynne is showing signs of putting up a better fight than many would have expected a couple of months ago, when there was speculation about her letting another Liberal take the helm.
Usually, politicians are most effective when selling ideas that excite them. Even many voters who don't pay close attention to policy minutiae, of whom there are lots provincially in Ontario, have good radars for sincerity. For most of Ms. Wynne's mandate, she has not met that test.
As Liberals close to her readily acknowledge, now that she's pivoted to stuff she would rather talk about, fiscal restraint – the slow path out of deficit that defined or at least limited her government's agenda until recently – is not a subject on which she is terribly convincing. She's even more ill-suited to making the case for privatization of the power utility Hydro One, a defining policy decision she almost certainly regrets despite short-term revenue it offered, because it has proven politically toxic with Liberal-NDP swing voters who put her in office.
Perhaps Ms. Wynne was co-opted by Bay Street, bureaucrats, or more conservative members of her party. Maybe she was determined to not be caricatured as a radical, after saying before she took office that she wanted to be a "social justice" premier. Whatever the reason, she seemed reluctant to play up even those policies that did fit well into her worldview. She seemingly spent more time promoting a modest experimentation with private liquor sales as touting free tuition for low-income students – a policy most Ontarians are likely still unaware exists.
In the last few months, though, Ms. Wynne has clearly shed that reluctance.
This year's budget, delivered in late April, features not just an inevitable pre-election spending spree now that the deficit is gone, but one geared toward big long-term initiatives – notably free pharmacare for anyone aged 24 and under. A housing affordability package, announced just before, includes a big expansion of rent control.
More ambitiously, if less sweepingly, the province has launched a pilot project in three cities to test the merits of government providing a basic income for the poor. And then, to be felt by far more Ontarians before they go to the polls next year, there is the labour announcement which beyond the minimum-wage hike includes an array of provisions such as ensuring part-time workers are paid fairly, and increasing emergency-leave and vacation requirements.
It would be beyond credulous to overlook the political calculations.
The Liberals plainly intend to approach Ms. Wynne's second campaign as they did her first, when she ran on a left-leaning budget that included expansive social and infrastructure spending, a promised provincial pension plan, and another minimum wage increase. Her Liberals were willing to risk driving away some voters who swing between them and Progressive Conservatives, to galvanize the much larger pool of Liberal-NDP voters.
Repeating that campaign's success won't be easy. Last time, the province's other parties almost laughably played into the Liberals' hands – PC Leader Tim Hudak running on a government-slashing agenda that incentivized non-conservatives to vote for whichever party could stop him, and Andrea Horwath's New Democrats feebly ceding those voters to the Liberals by failing to put forward much progressive policy. This time Mr. Hudak's replacement, Patrick Brown, will do everything he can to show voters outside his base that he's a moderate; Ms. Horwath has a new campaign team mindful that she has to make a case for herself.
Ms. Wynne, meanwhile, has lost a lot of goodwill since then. Energy privatization alone, and to a lesser extent her climb-down on aggressive urban transit strategies, may have damaged her credentials with progressives beyond repair. And after an array of compromises and controversies, she can't claim the same ostensible earnestness that once appealed to those voters.
In fact, just as she may be getting her legs under her – Liberal poll numbers ticking upwards, following the big-spending budget and announcement of a rebate to lower soaring energy bills – she'll soon be hit over the head with her own baggage. Come fall, two of her predecessor Dalton McGuinty's former top staffers will go on trial for criminal charges stemming from deletion of documents as he left office. As if to mock her past efforts to set herself apart, Ms. Wynne's former deputy chief of staff will go on trial almost simultaneously to face Election Act (not criminal) charges related to an alleged attempt to get a would-be by-election candidate to step aside.
But until then, and as much as she can through that period too, Ms. Wynne will package her new, interventionist policies into some variation of the message she road-tested this week: that under her leadership Ontario is leading Canada in economic growth, and now it's time to help people who are not feeling that growth get ahead.
It may or may not get heard, or be effective if it does. But it's the clearest articulation of an agenda she's had in years. And it's one about which she can at least herself sound persuaded, which is a start.