Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals may surprise in upcoming provincial vote

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne may not be personally popular, but some of her Liberal government's policies are. Matt Gurney says it's too early to count her out in the 2018 provincial election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Kathleen Wynne will shuffle her cabinet on Wednesday, six months ahead of the next provincial election. It didn’t take long for the jokes to start after the news broke on Tuesday night. Rats from sinking ship was a common theme.

One wise guy on Twitter simply responded to the news of the shuffle by tweeting out a video clip from James Cameron’s Titanic. What particular scene? The band stoically playing on as the ship slides beneath the waves.

So yes, har har har. Chortle chortle. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not convinced that this is anything other than the governing Liberals really getting its re-election plan started. And I think no one should underestimate how effective that campaign may prove.

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I’ll admit here as a point of disclosure what anyone who’s read my columns or listened to my radio show will already know: I’m not a fan of the Ontario Liberals. I believe a lot of their decisions have hobbled my home province in ways that my generation simply won’t be able to undo. It makes me more angry than I can politely express that my children are going to spend their working lives paying off the tab of the services and electricity I’m consuming today. They will lead poorer lives because of the policies of this government, if they stay in Ontario at all.

But I’m still (more or less) capable of neutrally evaluating the politics of this government, whatever I might think of the policies. And I think the politics here are shaping up for the Liberals in a way much better than their critics might think.

WATCH BELOW: Kathleen Wynne says ‘uncertainty’ will be theme of 2018 vote

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Kathleen Wynne says ‘uncertainty’ will be the ballot question in 2018

Let me first address the news of the day: whatever jokes might told about it, the cabinet shuffle won’t do much damage, if any, to the Liberals. It’s not a sign of panic, it’s an entirely logical step: a series of cabinet ministers aren’t seeking re-election, and they’ll be replaced with those who are. Makes perfect sense: you’re making sure the people actually seeking re-election get maximum exposure in their new jobs, while those who are leaving the game can fade into the background. (Now, it’s entirely fair to ask whether some of those long-time Liberals are quitting because they sense looming disaster, but that’s a subtlety different matter.)

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And, besides, even if the shuffle was entirely driven by existential panic, I mean, this is Ontario. I doubt the average voter can name a single minister. So it’s not like this would be a huge risk.

But I don’t think it is panic. I think it’s the beginning of what’s going to be an aggressive push by the Liberals to win, again, and extend their now 15-year run in government. The conventional wisdom is that they have no chance. I don’t buy that.

First of all, despite her grim approval ratings, Kathleen Wynne is an excellent politician. You don’t have to like her policies (I don’t, on balance) to admire her political talent.

She’s smart and shrewd and connects well with people, particularly in small settings. She’s actually my local MPP and I see her around the community a few times a year. I watch as an observer, and she’s impressive.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is quite good too, and the Conservative leader, Patrick Brown, though still to some measure unknown, certainly seems to hold his own. But Wynne, at the very least, will not be at a material disadvantage here. She will surprise people.

And then there’s the goodies. Lower hydro rates (well, lower today, using borrowed money we’ll need to pay back later; see my comments about my kids getting screwed above). A higher minimum wage, with a politically helpful spat with some rich Tim Hortons heirs thrown in, might impress some middle- and lower-income voters the Liberals urgently need aboard. And the so-called OHIP+ plan, essentially universal pharmacare for young Ontarians, might not be the whole smash pharmacare advocates would want, but it’s a big step in that direction. And Lord only knows what else they’ll roll out in the months to come.

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None of this will erase their record over the last 15 years. There is a lot of anger out there against this government, much of it deserved, but the fact remains that the party and the Premier will be in a decent place to contest the next election. They might not win; I’d honestly be a little surprised if they did. But I would not be shocked, and Ontarians need to understand that this could very easily be a hard-fought campaign, despite expectations.

Certainly the Liberals think so. I spoke recently with an old friend, a partisan Liberal involved in the campaign, and she cracked me up with a rather dry but, given recent Ontario political history, entirely warranted observation: “It’s the Tories to lose,” she told me. “And they will.”

Indeed. Whatever problems the Liberals have going into this campaign, someone still needs to beat them at the ballot box. The parties can’t all lose, someone needs to win. The Liberals are getting to set to do that, and the NDP and Conservatives are going to need to fight back.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

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