Skip to main content

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne sits with Finance Minister Charles Sousa in the Ontario Legislature on April 2, 2014.FRANK GUNN/The Canadian Press

At the start of this week, a senior member of Kathleen Wynne's Liberals expressed some satisfaction with how her government had managed to control the news cycle over the past couple of months.

Granted, any such control was at least temporarily lost late last week, when the unsealing of court documents revealed Ontario Provincial Police allegations about document destruction in the final days of Dalton McGuinty's reign. Nevertheless, the Liberal suggested, the rollout of policy announcements on more or less a daily basis had helped the government build a bit of momentum heading into a possible spring election – and hopefully, once the scandal died down, it would do so again.

Within a matter of hours of that conversation, the strategy had been both brought into the open and undermined, courtesy of a leaked document showing plans to roll out components of this spring's budget in advance of its tabling in early May. By releasing the schedule, the opposition Progressive Conservatives effectively scooped the Liberals – revealing their intentions to announce everything from new infrastructure projects to energy-price relief to new breakfast programs for kids, IVF funding for would-be parents and grants for seniors.

Undoubtedly, this unexpected development is a big hassle for the officials who laboured to put the rollout together. But Liberals have been divided on whether the leak was actually a bad thing for their party, or whether the Tories inadvertently did them a service – something others around Queen's Park have been debating as well.

A quick look, then, at three of the arguments on either side of that debate.

WHY THE LEAK HELPED THE LIBERALS

1. It changed the channel

As of Tuesday morning, it appeared Queen's Park would continue to be squarely focused on the OPP investigation and ensuing revelations. But if that story didn't get pushed out of the spotlight, it was at least forced to share it once the Liberals' budget plans became the issue of the day.

As an added benefit, Ms. Wynne – who had taken heat for skipping Question Period on Monday for a photo-op with curlers in Northern Ontario – got a much easier return to the Legislature than she probably expected. Rather than putting her on the defensive about what went on in the office she inherited, the Official Opposition led off with repeated questions about her "budget-leaking team," seemingly because they were amused by that moniker sharing an acronym with a sandwich.

2. It made for trial balloons

The Liberals have yet to confirm most of the policy announcements they've been revealed to be planning. And considering that the budget hasn't gone to the printers yet, not everything in the leaked document is carved in stone.

That means that if any of the policies get a negative reaction from media or from interest groups they're targeting, the Liberals could abandon or tweak them. And broadly, they might now be able to get a better sense of how the deficit-plagued province feels about a budget with lots of new spending, and whether messaging should be adjusted.

3. It will allow voter-friendly policies to be "announced" twice

Again, the Liberals haven't actually confirmed most policies laid out in the leaked document, and in any event almost all need fleshing out. So even if reporters know roughly what to expect, they'll still have little choice but to cover the announcements – meaning promises aimed at enticing voters will get two rounds of coverage, rather than just one.

That could be particularly useful to the Liberals when it comes to regionally focused commitments, such as a new highway between Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph and a light-rail transit line in Hamilton, to which local media can be expected to devote considerable attention.

WHY THE LEAK HURT THE LIBERALS

1. It makes it harder to change the channel later

Sure, the announcements we now know to expect will still get covered. But having lost the element of surprise, it will be tougher for the Liberals to use them to distract from bad news.

That's a potentially big problem for them, because it's a good bet there will be more twists and turns to the saga involving gas plants, document destruction, and whatever other skeletons Mr. McGuinty left behind in the closets of the Premier's office. It was never going to be easy for Ms. Wynne to control the agenda in the month ahead, and it may have just gotten even less so.

2. It gives their opponents a chance to frame their policies

Oddly, the Tories' main angle on the leak so far has been that it shows the government has a politicized budget process – something unlikely either to shock people who follow these things closely or be of particular interest to those who don't. But over the next few weeks, they can be expected to get out ahead of the individual announcements to put their own spin on them, before the Liberals do.

Andrea Horwath's NDP now has the same opportunity. And the New Democrats in particular, who the Liberals are trying to corner with left-of-centre policies that could be difficult for them to justify voting against, will be at less risk of being caught flat-footed.

3. It shows dysfunction

Forget any conspiracy theories about the Liberals deliberately leaking the document. More plausible is the explanation they were muttering about within hours of the leak – that it could be traced to an ongoing labour dispute with AMAPCEO, the union that represents managers in the Ontario Public Service.

Whatever the cause or whoever exactly it came from, this sort of leak can help cause a culture of mistrust at the highest levels of government. It can also give the impression of a government turning on itself or losing control in its final days, which is exactly what the Liberals don't need as they try to keep their morale up and convey "steady hands" to everyone else.

Adam Radwanski is The Globe's columnist covering Ontario politics.

Follow me on Twitter: @aradwanski

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct