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Even after she clobbered unsympathetic Tim Hortons franchisees in a public-relations fight over Ontario's new minimum wage, most Ontarians still won't like Kathleen Wynne.

But the way she responded last week to reports of employees losing paid breaks and benefits – consequences of the province's mandated pay increase, meted out by affluent offspring of the iconic donut chain's founders – may have convinced a few voters that she's someone they'd want in their corner anyway.

Consider it a small victory, then, as part of a re-election strategy that has been evident since last fall – one that abandons the charm offensive with which Ms. Wynne first took the provincial Liberals' helm five years ago, for something more hard-edged that her party believes is suited to a moment of mounting socioeconomic anxiety.

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Ms. Wynne has long enjoyed a public scrap with a good rival, as evidenced by the way she picked a fight with Stephen Harper over pension plans during the first week of Ontario's last election. But back then, Ms. Wynne was able to overcome general fatigue with her government partly because she came off warmer and more down to earth than both her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, and her main opponent, Tim Hudak. At times, as when she repeatedly apologized for the gas plants scandal she inherited, she struck a conciliatory tone in doing so.

Those days are long over. Maybe the Liberals' baggage after a decade and a half in power, energy prices and ethics controversies and other grievances, would be too much for any leader to be popular. Maybe Ms. Wynne's manner of presenting herself, which includes so much communications responsibility on her government's behalf that it can verge on overexposure, started to grate. Maybe Ontarians decided they'd been sold a bill of goods, as hyper-partisan messaging made her look more like a typical politician.

Whatever the cause, she got stuck with a personal approval rating under 20 per cent. And more important than what the public polls show is what her party sees in private research. There is no way, one of her top strategists conceded during a background conversation in late 2017, that her likeability could be salvaged before Ontario's June 7 election.

But that strategist also suggested something more encouraging in the Liberals' research: a degree of respect, however grudging, for Ms. Wynne's perceived toughness. And that fits into a common theme among many provincial Liberals. They believe that their best chance at re-election, however absurd it may seem after so long in power, is to present Ms. Wynne as a "change" candidate.

It's an approach most visibly encapsulated, so far, in an ad from the Liberals that began airing this past fall. Far from incumbents' usual boasts about everything improving under their watch, it begins with actors portraying struggling Ontarians lamenting the difficulty of making ends meet and finding steady work. Then Ms. Wynne turns up, saying, "It's not fair that in an economy on the rise, people who work as hard as anyone else still can't get ahead," so she "will never stop fighting for you."

The Liberals are trying to tap into the same angst – about wealth increasingly concentrated among a few at the expense of many, or the difficulty of career planning in an era of rapid technological advancement and changing workplaces – that has sparked political turmoil elsewhere. As Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown tries to reassure voters with a platform that suggests only cautious deviation from the status quo, and the NDP's Andrea Horwath flies under the radar, Ms. Wynne is trying to set herself up as the only one urgently doing battle on behalf of people being left behind.

Last year, she armed herself with policies to make that case. Beyond the sudden increase to the hourly minimum wage from $11.60 to $14 as of Jan. 1 (and then to $15 in 2019), there is free tuition for low-income postsecondary students; a pilot project testing guaranteed income; a step toward provincial pharmacare.

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But the battle part only works if someone is actively opposing these moves. Mr. Brown hasn't taken the bait as much as Liberals might wish – differentiating himself on the minimum-wage hike, for instance, only by saying he would bring in the last dollar of it more gradually. That leaves Ms. Wynne casting about for other foils.

Enter Tim Hortons. There was palpable eagerness to Ms. Wynne's pouncing on complaints about its Cobourg locations making employees pay for their wage increase through other means, by pronouncing it "the act of a bully." Because those franchises are owned by Ron Joyce Jr. and Jeri Horton-Joyce – son and daughter of co-founders Ron Joyce and Tim Horton, respectively – it gave her the opportunity to imply her adversaries are entitled heirs, not embattled small-business owners. If she had any doubt whether the optics worked, they were probably erased when Tim Hortons' parent company took her side against those and other locations reportedly cutting breaks and benefits.

The downside for her in so easily winning this particular PR skirmish is that it likely won't last until anywhere close to the election. And she may not stumble onto many others so easily.

But anyone inclined to push back against her minimum wage or other recent policies should know what they are getting themselves into. Some politicians would have looked at her personal numbers and decided to pack it in. Ms. Wynne decided to fight.

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