TORONTO – Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne fielded questions at a town hall Monday night on a five-week college strike and hydro, an issue that has helped send her popularity to record lows.
The event was the first in a series of town halls the premier is set to hold across the province to discuss fairness, a pervasive theme in her messaging this year and which will likely form a key part of her re-election platform next year.
Wynne’s personal approval ratings have been consistently below 20 per cent for the better part of a year, and one audience member pointed out that it was a political risk for her to take questions in such an open forum.
Though, “You don’t have much to risk when your numbers are so low,” he added.
Wynne told the moderator – who had asked her incredulously, “Why are you doing this?” – that when it comes to people engaging with their government, nothing can replace being able to ask questions of their elected representatives.
Several of the roughly 200 attendees were college students, who return to classes Tuesday after a five-week strike by faculty. The government ended the strike this weekend with back-to-work legislation, but the students had lingering questions about impacts on them and why Wynne didn’t intervene to end the strike sooner.
VIDEO: Ontario hydro customers to see 25% price cut on bills in 2017
Wynne reiterated what her government announced Monday morning, that students who wish to withdraw instead of continuing with a condensed semester can receive a full refund. Students can also receive up to $500 through a hardship fund.
The premier defended not intervening sooner by saying she was acting on advice she was given, though some students vocally disagreed with her assessment.
“That’s exactly what needs to happen right now is that we look at what actually was my authority or not,” Wynne said. “I had an understanding of what it was and I acted in good faith on that.”
Wynne said she will now look at the structure and accountability of the College Employer Council, which was the colleges’ bargaining agent.
The premier took about 90 minutes of questions on a wide variety of topics, from her government’s marijuana policy to affordable child care and systemic anti-black racism.
VIDEO: Ontario colleges strike ‘a victory’ in some ways: OPSEU president
She sparred the most with a representative of Ontario Proud, a largely social media-based anti-Wynne group that will be an official third-party advertiser in next year’s election.
He asked how Wynne could justify the $4.5-million compensation received in 2016 by Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt. Ontario partially privatized Hydro One, starting with an IPO in 2015 and leaving the province with just under 50 per cent ownership.
Wynne started talking about how her government reduced hydro bills by 25 per cent this year, though he countered that bills will significantly increase following the election.
Wynne has promised that rate increases will be held to inflation for the next four years, but in her plan they rise more sharply after that.
Another questioner criticized her privatization of Hydro One, which Wynne justified by saying it raised needed funds for infrastructure.