Kathleen Wynne fights for Liberals’ survival after admitting party has lost race

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Kathleen Wynne listen to students at the University of Waterloo during a campaign stop in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, June 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Ryan

TORONTO – In the final days of a volatile election campaign, Kathleen Wynne went from vying to stay on as Ontario’s premier to fighting for her party’s survival.

The Liberal leader and longtime politician had already acknowledged what she could no longer ignore – that for a variety of reasons, many people simply don’t like her – but had urged voters to look past personality and focus on policy.

But when neither that admission nor her policy savvy at the final leaders’ debate managed to turn the tides, and with polls showing the Liberals in danger of losing official party status, Wynne made an unexpected play.

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Predicting her own defeat, she urged voters to nonetheless support her candidates, saying a Liberal presence was needed to hold the next government to account.

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“Despite every effort, I know that a new government will take office after June 7. The stakes for these last few days of the campaign are clear,” she said in Toronto this week.

“The work that has been done in this province by us to make practical decisions not tied to an ideology on either side of the political spectrum has allowed this province to thrive … That momentum can’t be put at risk and there are real risks associated with either the NDP or Doug Ford.”

Whether Wynne’s gambit will save Liberal seats remains to be seen, and the premier has acknowledged her own may be at risk.

“I never take anything for granted,” she told The Canadian Press. “We’re working very hard.”

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The Liberals – in power for 15 years – were already facing an uphill battle.

Their spring budget was panned by critics as fiscally imprudent and a desperate effort to win votes. Wynne insisted that the billions it pumps into health care, child care and a drug and dental-care program were just building on her party’s past achievements and values.

Over the campaign, she was called on to justify controversial policy decisions such as the move to partially privatize Ontario’s largest electricity transmission and distribution provider, Hydro One.

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She also faced criticism over her party’s fiscal record, particularly an ongoing battle with Ontario’s auditor general and financial accountability office, who both say the government’s accounting has led it to underestimate the province’s deficit by billions. The Liberals have attributed the discrepancy to an accounting dispute.

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But attention shifted largely away from the Liberals after the New Democrats leapt ahead in the polls, turning the election into a competition between NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Tory Leader Doug Ford.

Regardless of the election’s outcome, however, there’s no question that Wynne – the first female premier in Ontario and the first openly gay premier in the country – brought about major change since coming to office in 2013, experts and associates say.

“When we look back at her administration, whenever it ends, we will be struck by the number of innovative bills that she personally either sponsored or instructed her ministers to generate and present,” said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario.

But the same drive for reform that pushed Wynne to enact carbon pricing and minimum wage hikes, and to update the province’s sex-ed curriculum and labour laws may have ruffled a few feathers, de Clercy said.

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READ MORE: Kathleen Wynne admits Liberals won’t win election, urges voters to still vote for the party

“She has very enthusiastically embraced a change agenda, perhaps with a little too much disregard for the consequences,” she said. “Perhaps she bit off a little bit more than she could chew or that voters could stomach.”

Wynne’s years as a cabinet minister cemented her belief in government’s ability to help others and, buoyed by a growing economy and a majority government, she was impatient to make what she saw as long overdue changes, said Karim Bardeesy, a former senior member of Wynne’s management team.

But while Wynne’s policy ambition may have stirred backlash from those who felt change was coming too fast, that alone doesn’t explain why her personal popularity took such a hit, said Bardeesy, now a visiting professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Weariness after years of Liberal government likely plays a role, as well as latent misogyny, he said.

“There’s a certain standard that she was held to as a female leader who was acting tough,” he said. “They expected a female leader who was a consensus-builder, which she is that as well, but when she started to exhibit some traits that were maybe a bit surprising to people, they reacted badly.”

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Wynne, first elected as a school trustee, said she felt pressure to prove herself at the start of her political career.

“I had to prove I was smart enough, I had to prove that I was business-like enough. I had been at home with my kids – I’ve got three kids – I’d been a community activist, I didn’t have the clothes,” she said.

“I had to really prove that I was up to the job, and maybe that’s made me seem more distant from people.”

Still, Wynne has proven she can collaborate with others, said Bardeesy.

One memorable example came in 2016, when Black Lives Matter activists marched to the legislature after being denied a meeting with Toronto’s mayor. The premier decided she would meet the group, overruling her advisers, Bardeesy said.

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“She just put on her coat and went right out there and, right there on live TV, had a conversation where there was a lot of yelling at her, and she was there, taking it and listening because she thought they deserved an audience,” he said.

“It was a quite impressive, to me, display of her willingness to encounter tough problems, her willingness to engage with people.”

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Wynne’s ability to connect with voters one-on-one was apparent during the campaign as well.

At a rally in Thunder Bay, Ont., a man who wasn’t a Liberal supporter stood outside holding a piece of paper with questions for Wynne. Growing frustrated with the wait, he crumpled the paper and stormed off, only to be reassured the premier would speak with him.

The conversation, about crime, homelessness and drug use in the man’s neighbourhood, ended with him and premier embracing.

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But Wynne acknowledged that “something has changed.”

“Women – apart from Christy Clark, a minority government that fell – don’t get re-elected into these positions,” she said.

“I’m not in any way blaming being a woman on the antipathy towards me. But I’m saying that, plus we’ve been in office a long time, plus whatever other sense of me that people have that I haven’t lived up to or conformed to, it’s all of that put together.”

Still, she said, Ontario’s progress was what mattered.

“What it’s about for me is, are we doing well in the province and have the things that I have done, have they worked.”

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– with files from Colin Perkel and Shawn Jeffords.

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