COMMENTARY: Ontario voters punished Kathleen Wynne’s ‘stretch goal’ approach to politics

Click to play video 'Ontario Elections Debrief: PC Majority & Liberal Loss' Ontario Elections Debrief: PC Majority & Liberal Loss
Alan Carter breaks down the results of the Ontario Election, what a loss of party status means for the Liberals and how Ford will act as premier – Jun 8, 2018

There wasn’t any doubt that the Ontario Liberal Party was going to experience a painful and humiliating defeat on Thursday night.

Any party faithful clinging to residual hope had it sandblasted away the Saturday before the vote. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s now-outgoing premier, conceded then that her party wasn’t going to win, and begged simply for enough Liberal MPPs to deny Doug Ford or Andrea Horwath the power of a majority government.

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Wynne: Doug Ford connected with millions of people in Ontario – Jun 8, 2018

WATCH: Doug Ford connected with millions of people in Ontario, Kathleen Wynne says

It was a bold move. Some lauded it as brave (mostly Liberals). Others called it a betrayal (also mainly Liberals, weirdly).

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What it was not was effective. The PCs won their majority. Doug Ford is the next premier of Ontario. And the Liberals … the Liberals got slaughtered.

You could see it coming.

READ MORE: Wynne hopes Ford changes rules to give Ontario Liberals official party status

When the campaign started, senior Liberal types would frankly acknowledge they had a long, hard road to any kind of victory. But they insisted it was possible, and that a combination of NDP inexperience and Ford’s … well, repulsiveness … would send voters reluctantly back to the Liberals.

They stuck to that story briefly, until it was clear that victory of any sort simply wasn’t happening, and then they pivoted to the “no majority” plan — saying that the Liberals could best serve Ontarians by holding the balance of power in the legislature. That would be victory’s new definition.

READ MORE: What’s next for the Liberal Party after its historic Ontario election defeat?

That lasted maybe five days. The Liberals then retreated to their last and final line of defence: holding onto official party status, which requires winning a mere eight seats out of the 124 up for grabs.

They came up one short of even that watered-down notion of victory. Seven Liberal MPPs will sit in Queen’s Park.

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In other words, the Liberal campaign was a “stretch goal” in reverse.

If you don’t follow the reference, a stretch goal was how Wynne infamously described an abject policy failure by her government.

In 2013, the Liberals, reduced to a minority, were forced to rely on NDP support to pass their budgets. An NDP demand to magically lower the province’s average auto insurance premium by 15 per cent was accepted; the Liberals utterly failed to deliver. The pledge was specific — 15 per cent lower premiums — achieved by the summer of 2015.

When the summer of 2015 came around exactly on schedule and the target had been missed by a mile, Wynne shrugged it off. The pledge was a “stretch goal,” she said. Something that sure would have been nice to accomplish, but oh well.

READ MORE: Kathleen Wynne says pledge to cut auto insurance 15 per cent was a ‘stretch goal’

“We always knew it was going to be a challenge,” the premier said then, “and the good news is that insurance rates continue to come down.”

Wynne took her lumps at the time. She was mocked, deservedly. The province moved on.

But in recent days, as I’ve been pondering the broader significance of Thursday’s vote — an incredible 15 years of straight governance ending in a catastrophic blowout defeat — my mind has returned to that incident again and again.

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She didn’t lose the election because of auto insurance rates or her use of the term “stretch goal.” But I think the seeds of her undoing might have been shown here. The Liberals, and Wynne herself, gradually drove Ontarians away not through their failures, but their inability to admit to, or possibly even perceive, those failures.

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Liberals ignored green energy advice that could’ve saved Ontarians billions, lead engineer says – May 30, 2018

WATCH: Liberals ignored green energy advice that could’ve saved Ontarians billions, lead engineer says

Missing the insurance premium cut wasn’t coming up a bit short on a stretch goal; it was a failure.

The Green Energy Act wasn’t a well-intentioned policy that somehow just missed the mark; it was a badly conceived and executed plan that proved a disaster for Ontarians, including many vulnerable people and businesses that supported families.

The decision a few months ago to return the province to deficit spending after pledging balanced books wasn’t “a choice,” as the premier insisted; it was an abandonment of their oft-made pledge that they would balance the books.

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The Liberals’ desperate attempts to cook those very same books to hide some of their accumulating debt wasn’t an “accounting dispute” with the Auditor General; it was an obvious attempt to mislead the voters.

READ MORE: Ontario auditor general says government understates deficit by billions

In a more normal political environment, those voters would have punished them for these (and many, many other) sins, but Ontario’s politics have been bizarre in recent years.

With hindsight, the Liberals might have been better off losing an election earlier — the defeat probably would have been far less apocalyptic than what the party just endured.

Alas, the Liberal re-election in 2014 let the party off the hook, or so it seemed. But the win then wasn’t a sign of forgiveness or acceptance by Ontario voters, it was a fluke. The Liberals campaigned hard, caught every conceivable break, won again, and learned nothing. The Liberals didn’t get it.

READ MORE: The Ontario election’s closest races (and landslide wins)

I’m not sure they do even now. In recent weeks, partisan Liberal friends of mine — remarkably, I still have some — had spoken often of Wynne’s intelligence, grasp of policy matters and personal human decency.

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I’ll grant all those things. But they don’t matter when the public has decided you’re too arrogant to ever admit a mistake, and especially when the public has come to believe that you might be so arrogant that you can’t even believe that you’re capable of making a mistake.

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Ontario Election: Kathleen Wynne resigns as head of Ontario Liberal Party – Jun 7, 2018

WATCH: Ontario Election: Kathleen Wynne resigns as head of Ontario Liberal Party

Books will be written about how the Liberals got to this sad, pathetic place. I suspect a whole chapter will be given over to the astonishing “Sorry, not sorry” ad, which is precisely how one would go about confirming to a skeptical public that absolutely no lessons had been learned after prior costly failures.

But I hope those books remember the “stretch goal” fiasco, and look hard at what it says about the willingness of Wynne and her Liberals to be honest, even with themselves, about failure.

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For, in the end, the real stretch goal was simply avoiding an unprecedented rejection by voters, one that puts Doug Ford, of all people, into the Premier’s Office for at least the next four years. It was a low bar — but yet another one that proved beyond Kathleen Wynne’s grasp.

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