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Matt Gurney: Will Ontarians stick with Doug Ford?
Doug Ford deserves to lose, but look at the competition, folks.
Kathleen Wynne, former premier of Ontario, is a thoughtful, intelligent and decent person. But she has one hell of a political weakness, a blindspot, as it were. It might not have cost her the last election, but it made the defeat more crushing and painful than it had to be. And this blindspot hasn't gone away.
It's an admittedly odd time to be writing about the last premier of Ontario, given how much trouble the current one finds himself in. It's hard to find anyone these days who's pleased with Doug Ford, her successor. Ford, in the face of a big Omicron surge, has slammed restrictive public-health regulations back down on his wary, frustrated populace, including a total school closure — something he had been saying just last week he would not to. So, yeah. He's in the doghouse with about 15 million of his constituents, and I haven't held back in expressing my own anger.
It's still worth taking a look at Wynne, though, for two reasons. The first is simply that she gave a recent interview, and it's worth discussing. The second is related to the above: the only chance Doug Ford has of surviving this June's provincial election is if the electorate is so disillusioned with the alternatives that they stick with the Progressive Conservatives. And that chance is better, I think, than many want to believe. Understanding the anger Wynne left behind is critical to analyzing Ford's odds.
Wynne was premier for about five and a half years, from 2013 to 2018. The first year-and-a-bit of her tenure as premier was finishing the minority term of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty. McGuinty resigned under the proverbial cloud of controversy after a series of scandals, most specifically the cancellation, at considerable cost, of some gas-fired power plants in the Greater Toronto Area, plants that his government had championed in the face of loud local opposition ... until he suddenly blinked and cancelled them. A lot of smart people (and not so smart people, because I thought this too) figured that Wynne was going to be a footnote: She'd finish McGuinty’s term and get blown out by the provincial Tories in 2014. That didn't happen. Wynne and the Liberals won a majority, and a surprisingly strong one.
That was probably to their misfortune, with hindsight. The next four years were not kind to Wynne or her party. In 2018, Doug Ford led the Tories to an absolutely crushing blowout victory; the Liberals were reduced to a mere seven MPPs (including Wynne). The Liberal rump was mockingly dubbed the minivan caucus, since they could all fit inside one. The campaign itself was an odd one, with the Liberals, clearly aware that they were doomed, putting on a pretty desperate, undignified show. Perhaps the most painful-to-watch moment was a press conference where Wynne pre-emptively conceded defeat and begged voters to at least hold Ford to a minority, where Liberals would hold the balance of power. The voters did no such thing.
That's a pretty concise recapping of a very busy period in Ontario politics, but it omitted something very important: both Wynne and her predecessor McGuinty were lightning rods for astonishingly hostile outpourings of hate from members of the public. Her approval ratings were catastrophically low, but this was something else: raw fury among a part of the electorate. Ontarians are tranquil people, as a rule, but the level of vitriol, though perhaps less shocking now, given our increasingly toxic political culture, was certainly shocking then. There was some speculation that this was targeted at Wynne personally because of her identity — she was not just Ontario's first female premier, but also Canada's first openly gay premier. Those things contributed, no doubt, but McGuinty was just as hated. There was something else going on.
On election night in 2018, I was in a Toronto venue with the Liberal campaign and Wynne's people. The defeat was overwhelming, even if it was expected. I mingled with the dejected crowd for a bit while reporting for Global News, where I then worked, and then went home. Too amped up to sleep, I wrote a column that night that tried to explain why I thought people were so angry at Wynne (and McGuinty before her). It wasn't just the scandals and the bad decisions and the baggage that all governments eventually accumulate. It was the inability of Wynne, and her party, to admit that it had made errors.
There had been tactical admissions and apologies along the way, of course, but the party seemed remarkably oblivious to the fact that many people were angry for a reason. In my 2018 column, I wrote specifically about a relatively minor scandal from her tenure, but one that I thought was telling. When the Liberals had had a minority, they'd traded a promise to lower provincial auto insurance premiums for support from the NDP caucus. The promise was specific — a 15-per-cent cut, achieved by the summer of 2015. No such thing happened when the appointed time came around, and the Liberals had their majority by then anyway, so Wynne shrugged. Ah well, was her attitude. It was only ever a "stretch goal" anyway — a nice thing to have, but not a big deal to miss.
Again, this was a minor blip even then. But it stuck in my mind for some reason as symbolic of Wynne's approach to the public, and her party's stance more generally. What, you idiots actually believed us? Hey, that's your problem, not ours. Vote Liberal!
Here's how I summed it up back in 2018, the night of her defeat:
[Wynne] didn’t lose the election because of auto insurance rates or her use of the term “stretch goal.” But I think the seeds of her undoing might have been shown here. The Liberals, and Wynne herself, gradually drove Ontarians away not through their failures, but their inability to admit to, or possibly even perceive, those failures. Missing the insurance premium cut wasn’t coming up a bit short on a stretch goal; it was a failure. The Green Energy Act wasn’t a well-intentioned policy that somehow just missed the mark; it was a badly conceived and executed plan that proved a disaster for Ontarians, including many vulnerable people and businesses that supported families. The decision a few months ago to return the province to deficit spending after pledging balanced books wasn’t “a choice,” as the premier insisted; it was an abandonment of their oft-made pledge that they would balance the books. The Liberals’ desperate attempts to cook those very same books to hide some of their accumulating debt wasn’t an “accounting dispute” with the Auditor General; it was an obvious attempt to mislead the voters.
That was my analysis then; it's still substantially my analysis now. I don't know if Wynne or any other Liberal could have won in 2018; their government was old and battered by then, well past its natural best-before date. Its fluke win in 2014 set it up for a crash at the next election and that crash can't be laid entirely at the feet of Wynne. But the Liberal defeat wasn't the only story of that era in Ontario politics, or even the most interesting one. The public anger was. And I think the events described above, and Wynne's inability to recognize or admit a mistake, fed that anger. She might have been doomed electorally, but her inability or refusal to truly admit and accept errors, best captured in a spectacularly tone-deaf ad where she insisted she wasn't sorry for any of it, goes a long way to explaining the tone and scale of the defeat. (Seriously. I think that was the dumbest ad of my lifetime. Careers should have ended because of it.)
Wynne will soon exit public life, having served out a whole term as an opposition MPP, something she says she owed the local voters in her riding that supported her. (For what it's worth, I live in her riding, and used to see her around the community fairly regularly.) She gave Paul Wells of Maclean's a long interview. It's worth reading on its own merits, because it’s genuinely very interesting and covers a lot of ground, but something in particular jumped out at me. That exact thing I identified back in 2018 — an inability to accept or admit mistakes — just keeps on shining through. Four years of reflection seems to have been not quite long enough.
Wells had jumped on something she said; Wynne had agreed there were times she should have listened better. He asked her for an example, and she said that she didn't listen well enough to warnings that the Liberal electricity policies were inevitably going to drive prices upward, a painful issue for many Ontarians that undeniably hurt her government. OK, I thought when I read that. Fair enough! But then in her next answer, she pivots from admitting to a failure to blaming other people for it (emphasis added):
Well, I think the NDP capitalized really well on [the hydro issues]. And what they helped the people of Ontario say is, ‘By selling Hydro One you have made our electricity prices go up.’ Which actually wasn’t true. It was all that other stuff that I was talking about. But that’s what people believed.
I also think that people of Ontario were saying, ‘You’re selling off this precious resource that we’ll never get back,’ because I believe they understood the sell-off to be Niagara Falls. I believe they thought I was selling off generation [capacity] and I wasn’t. I was selling off transmission that had already been separated from generation. It was already partly private. But nobody cared about that. I really think the NDP were able to say, ‘Look, these are Liberals who privatize and they’re privatizing your hydro.’
This ... this is not a person reflecting on her failure to listen, is it? This is a person who thinks that people were mad at her because they were dumb or mislead.
Wynne really does seem like a pleasant person. I have nothing against her personally, and never did. She won my riding for a reason: even as the province rejected her party, my neighbours continued to like her. So I hope none of what I'm saying comes off as a personal attack. It's not. It's an analysis of a politician: she's tone-deaf when it comes to her own mistakes, and those of her party. She was then, she remains so now.
And this matters.
Doug Ford objectively deserves to get blown out in June of this year. His government was a disaster before COVID-19, and when the pandemic arrived, it seamlessly evolved into a somewhat different kind of disaster — the kind that has resulted in people dying and having their lives repeatedly disrupted as the government has chaotically flailed about, trying without success to get ahead of the crisis. People are angry — and not just “Ontario angry,” an emotion that would be more akin to mild irritation in most other places. I haven’t seen and heard this much raw anger among Ontarians since last April, when they were also angry at Doug Ford.
Yet for all that, I don’t think anyone should bet against the premier’s re-election. It’s not enough to hate Ford. You need a viable alternative. The PCs still lead in the polls, or at least they did a few days ago (things are kinda fluid right now, so take that with a grain or two of salt). Ontario’s NDP is chronically useless; even as Ford has struggled, the NDP (which currently form the opposition) have often trailed the Liberals in the polls, even when the Liberals had no full-time leader. “Generic Liberal” continually beats “Actual NDP” among Ontarians.
And the leader the Liberals ultimately chose, Steven Del Duca, is a veteran of the McGuinty and Wynne eras. He comes with baggage, leading a party with baggage.
Maybe he wins. Who knows? God knows Ford is vulnerable. But for all that’s happened since 2018, and gosh, a lot has happened, I’m not sure the public has really forgiven the Liberals yet. And I’m even less sure the Liberals deserve the forgiveness. As much as this will blow the minds of many, there’s still a damn good chance that come June, Ontarians will choose to stick with Ford.
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