ANALYSIS: Sudbury byelection trial and the unravelling of the promise of Kathleen Wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talks to media after appearing as a witness in the Election Act bribery trial in Sudbury, Ontario, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talks to media after appearing as a witness in the Election Act bribery trial in Sudbury, Ontario, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

“I thought it was the decent thing to do.”

On the stand in Sudbury, Ont., Premier Kathleen Wynne told the court it was noble intentions that set in motion events that have resulted in charges of bribery against two Liberals – one from her inner circle. Similar good intentions, she told the media outside the courthouse after testifying, had brought her to the Big Nickel to set the record straight.

Those good intentions, and what voters think of them, are really what’s being judged here. The actual trial underway in the small Sudbury courtroom is about the narrow interpretation of the loosely worded Ontario Elections Act, the kind of thing that is so dull the Crown couldn’t even muster an attorney willing to stick the entire thing out. Vern Brewer, so mild and meek in speech that he’s continually asked to repeat himself, will retire before the case is complete.

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READ MORE: Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault testifies at Liberal bribery trial in Sudbury

But what is at stake in Sudbury has little to do with charges from a never before tested statute, and everything to do with the kind of leader Wynne promised she would be.

Defying the odds by skillfully dropping the heavy baggage of the McGuinty years, Wynne campaigned in 2014 on a promise of doing things differently. Dynamic leadership from Wynne combined with PC missteps put the Liberals back into majority, capturing seats that had eluded them for decades, with one standout failure. The long held Liberal bastion of Sudbury had gone orange.

It turned out, Wynne said on the stand, that the young man holding the Liberal banner in the 2014 election, Andrew Olivier, hadn’t been a very good candidate. When the riding unexpectedly came open five months later, Wynne was determined to not to just win it back, but to do so with a flourish.

VIDEO: Kathleen Wynne and Patrick Brown trade blows over Sudbury

Click to play video 'The Breakdown: Kathleen Wynne and Patrick Brown trade blows over Sudbury' The Breakdown: Kathleen Wynne and Patrick Brown trade blows over Sudbury
The Breakdown: Kathleen Wynne and Patrick Brown trade blows over Sudbury – Sep 14, 2017

It was in Sudbury, that the promise of a different kind of politician first seemed impossible to square with the reality of doing politics in Ontario. With a clumsy use of political muscle, Wynne demonstrated she was just like all the other backroom wheelers and dealers and no matter what her intentions might have been – nothing has managed to take away the taint of self-interest that began in Sudbury.

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Wynne was willing to go to considerable lengths to retake a seat that wouldn’t change the balance of power, including holding a private meeting with a disgruntled NDP MP in her Don Valley home. She and Glenn Thibeault “connected” Wynne told the court. It was going to be big news when he crossed the floor, and a feather in the cap of a premier hoping to extend her honeymoon with voters.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Those good intentions to soothe the bruised ambition of a losing candidate ran squarely into Olivier’s obstinate refusal to grant Thibeault an uncontested nomination, and more importantly, Olivier’s voice recorder.

READ MORE: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne takes stand at Liberal bribery trial

The tapes of those entreaties pulled back the curtain on a leader who wanted not just to win, but to conquer and crush her political opponents.

It’s been pointed out this kind of thing happens all the time in politics, we just never hear recordings of it. True. Equally true is the reason party leaders send emissaries to do this unsavoury work. It simply doesn’t square with the image of selfless public service that is the hard currency every successful politician seeks.

After Sudbury, Wynne began losing that currency quickly and her popularity sank along with it. Every progressive move the Liberals have made since has met with increasing skepticism, and more and more questions about motives. Confronted with spiking hydro prices, Wynne argued that spreading out hydro “investments” to further generations was the fair thing, the decent thing, to do. Recent polling data shows support is low despite the crowd pleasing hydro price drop of 25 per cent on average. For a large part of the population, when Wynne now says “fair,” many people think “fair-for-her.”

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That disconnect between political intention and voter skepticism was planted in the Sudbury byelection scandal. Come election time June 7, 2018, Wynne will find out just how bitter the fruit of that plant will be.

Alan Carter is the host of Focus Ontario, which airs Sundays on Global at 11:30 a.m.