Ontario is facing long-term economic challenges, and of the provincial Liberal leadership candidates with a serious chance of succeeding Dalton McGuinty as Premier, Sandra Pupatello understands that best. Ms. Pupatello speaks with knowledge and conviction about jobs and the economy. In her former role as minister of economic development and innovation, she worked closely with business and industry. Of the other candidates, only Harinder Takhar has demonstrated a similar focus. It is the overarching issue facing the next premier.
As they meet this weekend, Liberal delegates should reflect on what the economist Don Drummond tried to drill home in his report issued less than one year ago: "We can no longer assume a resumption of Ontario's traditionally strong economic growth and the continued prosperity on which the province has built its public services. Nor can we count on steady, dependable revenue growth to finance government programs."
It is all well and good to do as Kathleen Wynne, the other leading Liberal leadership contender, and some of the other candidates have done in this campaign, and emphasize social issues. Ms. Pupatello would doubtless also like to live in an idyllic society, but she understands that what is required first is economic and fiscal leadership.
Again from the Drummond report: "Unless policy-makers act swiftly and boldly … Ontario faces a series of deficits that would undermine the province's economic and social future."
Ms. Wynne is a tenacious and earnest competitor. But her strategy is flawed. Offering herself up as the conscience of the party might appeal to some delegates who equate Liberal values with leftish activism. In fact, that is what the NDP already does, and the idea that Wynne-led Liberals would hive off support from the social democrats is a stretch. It could just as well work the other way.
Under Mr. McGuinty, Ontario started to adjust to its immense fiscal challenges, including confronting public-sector pay demands, even at the risk of alienating the Liberals' base. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced this week a glimmer of light, that Ontario's deficit is $3-billion lower than projected, thanks in part to some of these difficult decisions.
Ms. Pupatello seems to understand that deeper deficit financing is not the answer, and that this is the start, not the end, of what is required. Yet she is not endorsing anything more radical than a better managed version of the status quo. If elected, she may yet have to follow some more of Mr. Drummond's advice and pursue more aggressive change: "Do not hang onto public assets or public service delivery when better options exist. Consider privatizing assets and moving to the private delivery of services wherever feasible."
Ms. Pupatello has another advantage over her opponents, and not just in the Liberal leadership race but among opposition parties as well: She is an effective communicator, exuding a personal warmth that may help her sell the inevitably tough fiscal medicine Ontarians will have to take in the years ahead. The Liberals have not really recovered since winning the last election with a minority. Mr. McGuinty failed to adjust to the party's reduced circumstances, and allowed the opposition to define the political agenda. Ms. Pupatello was out of politics during this shambolic interlude, and is largely untarnished by it. With Sandra Pupatello, the Liberals will have focused and energetic leadership to make up for lost time and lost credibility. She is the best choice for Liberals.