In the first moments of her first provincial election as Liberal party leader, Kathleen Wynne faced her first big question.
Not about her campaign platform, the outlines of which were contained in last week’s provincial budget. Not about anything she had or hadn’t done or would do if re-elected.
No, reporters asked her about the elephant in the room — or more precisely, the elephant dung left behind in the premier’s office by its previous occupant, Dalton McGuinty. With the stench of a gas plant scandal still wafting over Queen’s Park, Wynne must clear the air or be claimed by the fallout.
“So this is a question that I really want people to understand my response on,” she began, staring at the cameras.
“I am Kathleen Wynne. And I’m running in this election against Andrea Horwath of the NDP and Tim Hudak of the Progressive Conservatives.”
At another point, she tried a variation on that theme:
“I’ve been premier for only a bit more than a year now. I’m still a new face to many Ontarians. I know that.”
It didn’t satisfy the journalists covering her past 15 months as premier, but Wynne had a point: Most Ontarians don’t follow provincial politics closely between elections, let alone the ins and outs of a confusing fiasco that dates from the last election of 2011.
Voters barely know her, except that she is more or less the new kid in town who came in after big bad McGuinty was drummed out. She may yet be able to frame her own image before the opposition does it for her.
Will Wynne throw McGuinty under the bus as her campaign bus pulls out of downtown Toronto for the first time Monday morning? Like wiping a computer hard drive, erasing the province’s collective memory can be complicated. How does she avoid the detritus of Dalton when her political rivals are throwing so much mud at her?
An election is like a meteor shower or a solar eclipse. No one pays attention before or after, but the occurrence is full of darkness and light, its cosmic forces only dimly understood by dim-witted commentators and dark strategists.
The dynamics are utterly unpredictable, but it’s quite likely that this extended 41-day campaign won’t lend itself to endless repetitions of past history because scandal fatigue may set in. Like waging war, winning an election is not about replaying the last battle but fighting a conflict over the future.
That’s why this election is unlikely to be a referendum on McGuinty’s record, any more than the last one was (remember eHealth and the HST?). He was an unpopular premier going into the 2011 campaign, with his party well behind in the polls. Two fresh-faced politicians, Hudak and Horwath, pounded away at his record but lost the campaign because they didn’t provide coherent alternatives for voters.
Voters tend not to vote against someone, but for something. While Hudak has indulged in the most scandalmongering so far, he has learned the lessons of 2011 — this time laying out a substantive vision by publishing a series of controversial “white papers” that will form the basis of a campaign platform. Privately, the Tory leader tells people he won’t make the mistake of acting like an opposition leader while running for premier, and will instead seek a mandate to counteract the profligate Liberals.
Horwath hasn’t hinted yet at her own vision. Curiously for a New Democrat, she eschews policy pronouncements, plays down progressive proposals, and denounces taxation that pays for vital social programs (other than “modest” corporate tax hikes). Announcing her decision to defeat the spring budget, which read very much like an NDP budget, Horwath wouldn’t say what she disagreed with, just that Wynne wasn’t as trustworthy as the NDP to get the job done.
As the third party, currently holding 21 seats in a 107-seat legislature, one would have to be a truly optimistic true believer to imagine that the NDP can win enough seats to deliver the goods — and the progressive goodies — in Wynne’s budget: welfare increases, wage hikes for poorly paid child-care workers and an unprecedented pension plan long sought by organized labour (and the NDP).
At some point, Horwath will have to shift from opposing to proposing. Historically, Ontario elections are less about punishing the bad guy than about choosing from among the lesser of three evils.
Wynne will be pushing her tax-and-spend budget package, with its combined political stimulus and economic stimulus, as her campaign bus takes a left turn that tries to leave McGuinty in the rear-view mirror.
Hudak will push back by promising to downsize government and cut big labour down to size, brushing off accusations of a hidden agenda — or a scary one.
Horwath will present herself as the most trustworthy, the populist politician with the invisible agenda — details to come.
Plenty of choices for voters looking beyond the June 12 ballot. And for those who prefer to look back, there will always be the demon that is Dalton McGuinty, no matter what Wynne says.