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Since the federal campaign officially began, Kathleen Wynne has actively sought out opportunities to insert herself into it. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Since the federal campaign officially began, Kathleen Wynne has actively sought out opportunities to insert herself into it. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Liberals unsure if Wynne a boon or a bane for Trudeau in Ontario Add to ...

With their fate resting largely on their ability to break through in the country’s largest province, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals need what Kathleen Wynne has.

They need the hundreds of political staff who work for her provincial Liberal government to hit the ground, helping run local campaigns or knocking on doors in their spare time. They need the experience that comes with having run winning provincial campaigns in ridings where they have been wiped off the map federally. They need her party’s volunteer lists, and whatever other data it has been able to share.

Just how much they need the Ontario Premier herself, though, is a different question. On that front, views among federal Liberals are more mixed – not that her personal level of involvement in the current federal campaign is necessarily up to them.

“No matter what we say, I think she wants to be involved in some capacity,” a member of Mr. Trudeau’s campaign team said this week.

Harbouring apparently genuine animosity toward Stephen Harper, in part because of his opposition to (and obstruction of) her effort to introduce a provincial pension program, Ms. Wynne is aiming to use her political capital to try to get the Conservatives out of office.

Since the federal campaign officially began, she has actively sought out opportunities to insert herself into it. Attacking Mr. Harper for the early writ drop, she volunteered that he “thinks Canadians can be bought.” On national radio and while attending the opening of a Liberal candidate’s campaign office, she suggested nation-building projects such as a national railroad wouldn’t have happened under Mr. Harper’s watch.

What is not entirely clear is whether Ms. Wynne has much political capital at the moment. Fifteen months after the past Ontario election, she is at the point in her mandate where a government’s support often ebbs, because it is getting heavy lifting out of the way well before it faces voters again. Several public opinion polls have shown the provincial Liberals taking a hit.

Members of Ms. Wynne’s camp said this week that internal polling shows her in much better shape. And a top official on Mr. Trudeau’s camp backed that up, describing her as the most popular of Ontario’s provincial leaders.

Among other federal Liberals, there is a general consensus that Ms. Wynne is indeed helpful in downtown Toronto, where the Premier’s urbane persona continues to play relatively well, and where she is expected to soon appear alongside Mr. Trudeau at a campaign event. But among some campaign officials and candidates, there is a belief she is as much a hindrance as a help elsewhere – including not just rural and small-town ridings, where they are in tough regardless, but also suburban battlegrounds.

There are three flashpoints, or potential ones, they tend to cite.

The one that got the most attention over the first half of this year, the province’s new sex-education curriculum, is probably least important. Most federal and provincial Liberals alike now say they believe the issue is a net positive for them. Still, there are some pockets – most significantly Toronto-area immigrant communities – where Liberal candidates continue to hear negatively about it.

More relevant is the province’s plan to privatize the energy utility Hydro One. To some left-of-centre voters who defected from the NDP to the Liberals in the past Ontario election, it looks like a betrayal. To others, it’s a reminder of their overall unhappiness with provincial energy policies and rising prices.

Most worrisome for the Liberals in terms of how it could play over the balance of the campaign is the province’s contract impasse with teachers, and the potential for job action this fall. Members of Mr. Trudeau’s team concede that, if matters come to a head, they may have to limit their leader’s time in Ontario around the start of the school year.

Tying these last two in particular together, and any other grievances besides, is the potential for a general sense of fatigue with a provincial government in power for a dozen years, and currently spending lots of time in voters’ faces. As Mr. Trudeau competes with the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair to establish himself as a change agent, having Ms. Wynne so visible on his behalf could confuse matters.

But then, a third-place party that won 11 seats in Ontario in the past federal election is hardly in position to second-guess a Premier who led her party to more than five times that number. Unlike Mr. Trudeau, on whom the jury is out, Ms. Wynne has already proven herself a strong campaigner. Picking a fight with Mr. Harper at the start of last year’s provincial campaign worked out well for her, and perhaps her instincts are right again.

And if those instincts are wrong, there’s not much the federal Liberals can do about it. Needing Ms. Wynne’s organizational help too much to risk alienating her, they’ll just have to take any bad with the good.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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