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Opinion Kathleen Wynne cashed in her chips too early – and too late

Lori Turnbull is interim director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and a fellow at the Public Policy Forum

Kathleen Wynne has conceded the election days before the polls have even opened. She knows as well as everyone else does that the Liberals have been consistently polling at a distant third place and nothing that happens between now and the election is going to change that. Her statement on Saturday can be interpreted as an admission of her own lack of popularity. She’s promising that she won’t be Premier anymore and, in exchange, is asking Ontario voters to elect enough Liberal MPPs to ensure that neither Doug Ford nor Andrea Horwath is given carte blanche – or, in Wynne’s words, a “blank cheque.”

Ms. Wynne’s announcement comes both too late and too early. The voices inside and outside of the Liberal party have been calling for her to step aside for at least two years. This could have allowed the party to choose a more popular leader and have a fighting chance in this election.

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Let’s be clear, though: a Liberal victory in 2018 was going to be next to impossible no matter who the leader was. The Liberals have been running Queen’s Park for 15 years and the voter fatigue is palpable. This was always going to be a change election. It could be argued that Ms. Wynne has done the right thing by going down with the ship; if she had resigned two years ago, the new leader would have been a sacrificial lamb. However, the party’s situation now is nothing short of desperate.

What Ms. Wynne is asking voters to do is save the party from oblivion, as a loss of official party status would be embarrassing, costly and would make rebuilding a much deeper challenge. In Ms. Horwath’s words, Ms. Wynne’s plea is “a bit rich”: she’s asking Ontario to make her party the kingmaker in a minority government scenario. It is in this context that Ms. Wynne is cashing in her chips too early.

No matter what happens at the polls on June 7, Ms. Wynne will be the Premier on Thursday. And Friday. She will be the Premier until a new one is sworn in, which usually takes roughly two weeks when an election produces a change in government. As the first minister in a Westminster system, she actually has a lot of political capital (or, at least, she did until Saturday).

If Ms. Wynne gets her wish and neither the NDP nor the Progressive Conservatives win a majority, it would be possible and completely legitimate for her to meet the legislature to see whether she could hold its confidence. Imagine the following scenario: Mr. Ford’s PCs obtain a plurality of seats by a slim margin. Together, the Liberals and the NDP hold a majority. It is entirely conceivable that Ms. Wynne and Ms. Horwath could reach an agreement of confidence and supply, just like the one holding the Greens and the NDP together in British Columbia, that would prevent a Ford government and allow them to work together toward common goals.

Such an agreement need not last a full four-year electoral cycle; it could include provisions to revisit the terms of the partnership at the six, 12 or 18-month point (or, at all three). A change in leadership would no doubt materialize at some point, but it need not happen right away.

As first minister, Ms. Wynne holds the right to govern until she either resigns or is defeated in a confidence vote. Neither of these things has happened but, by conceding the election too early, Ms. Wynne has essentially forfeited her constitutional right to govern. Her decision has an underlying logic of aiming to stop the bleeding, which may make sense from a political perspective, but it demonstrates just how disconnected we are from the reality of parliamentary government. We forget that elections choose MPPs, not governments; it is the Lieutenant-Governor who asks one of these MPPs to form a government, based on evidence that he or she can hold the confidence of the legislature.

If either Mr. Ford or Ms. Horwath wins a majority, none of this will seem to matter. But it does. The Liberals will not come first in this election, but parliamentary government is not designed for premature concession speeches. The Premier’s decision pre-empts the conversation that could have happened between Ms. Wynne, Ms. Horwath and Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell (three women!) – a conversation that could have resulted in a governance arrangement with Ms. Wynne herself at the helm.

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