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                                    Kathleen Wynne and Women in Power



By Randall White

According to a recent Angus Reid poll, Kathleen Wynne’s approval rating has sunk to an “all-time low” of 12%. 

You don’t have to be a Liberal partisan to find this a little surprising.

Rising hydro rates have indeed done the lady from Don Valley West serious damage.

Yet viewed more broadly she has arguably been an effective premier of Ontario in challenging times. From any strictly evidence-based perspective, she deserves better than 12%. 

As promised, the budget will be conservatively balanced. At the same time, Liberals have not given up on the progressive role of government. And the regional economy is stronger than in other comparable places.

Partisan PCs or New Democrats won’t be looking for more objective explanations.  

But for others it may be time to re-examine the optimistic conventional wisdom that Kathleen Wynne’s status as what Wikipedia calls “Ontario's first female premier and Canada's first openly gay premier” has had no serious impact on her electoral fortunes. 

In the larger Anglo sphere that remains so influential north of the Great Lakes, both the 2016 U.S. election and Brexit in the UK have raised fresh mixed messages about what a recent issue of the London Review of Books called “Women in Power.”

First there is Hillary Clinton, who unexpectedly did not become first female president of the United States. And then there is Theresa May, who Brexit has unexpectedly made the second female prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Contemplating all this, the British historian of ancient Rome (and TV Ontario star) Mary Beard worries about “a cultural template, which works to disempower women” — embedded deep within “the logic of the Western tradition.” 

(In the particular case of Theresa May, Ms. Beard also ponders the “possibility that we will end up looking back to her as a woman who was put into power in order to fail.”)

So, what about the case of Ontario’s first woman in power (and openly gay woman at that), Premier Kathleen Wynne? 

Just after election day on June 12, 2014, the Globe and Mail declared, “Ontario takes pride that gay premier’s win taken in stride.” Premier Wynne herself enthused about how “we have so proven” that “Ontarians want to be an open and inclusive people.”

Yet right from the start — and as elsewhere with our particular blend of electoral and party systems — in 2014 Premier Wynne’s Liberals won 58 out of 107 seats in the legislature (or just over 54%) with only 38.7% of the province-wide popular vote. 

The majority, then, did not vote for Ontario’s first female and Canada's first openly gay premier.

It is true enough that if you combine Liberal, NDP and Green votes in 2014, a majority did support parties that might be expected to embrace female and even openly gay premiers. 

Moreover, two more females are among the other eight premiers included in the Angus Reid poll that determined Kathleen Wynne’s record low approval rating of 12%. And both Christy Clark in BC and Rachel Notley in Alberta are in the middle of the pack at 31%. 

It is true as well that Ms. Wynne’s male predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, also posted notably low approval ratings in Angus Reid polls (if not quite as low as Ms. Wynne's lately). 

Yet a public poll last fall did suggest “Liberals could win majority if they ditch Wynne as leader.” And there is talk about just such a prospect now. It will not lead anywhere, but it may continue. Kathleen Wynne herself is becoming the issue.

On a moderate view, only a few voters in 2017 seriously harbour the thought that a woman cannot be premier of Canada’s most populous province (let alone an openly gay woman with children from an earlier straight marriage).

But many might agree that Premier Wynne is being held to higher standards than a man. And some Old Ontario voice may still be telling us it is just not ladylike to be as competitive politically as Kathleen Wynne.

As for Mary Beard, she traces the extreme case back to ancient Greece: “Amazons were a Greek male myth. The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or ... one that had been mastered, in the bedroom ... it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women.”

This is certainly going far too far for Kathleen Wynne in Ontario today. But we suddenly do seem to be in different times than we were in 2014. 

After the 2018 provincial election the Globe and Mail may not be able to write quite such an optimistic headline as “Ontario takes pride that gay premier’s win taken in stride.” 

We probably do still “want to be an open and inclusive people,” as Premier Wynne urged in 2014.

But it may now be clearer that we can’t always get what we want.





About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : April 04, 2017

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