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The ONW Salon: Wynne Moves Left, But Will It Work?

The Liberals are moving left in advance of the upcoming 2018 election in Ontario - witness the new pharmacare program for those under 25 and Basic Income pilot projects. It's a strategy the Liberals used in both the last provincial and federal campaigns, but can it work a third time? Or will Andrea Horwath's NDP win the fight to represent progressives in Ontario?  Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin debate.



John Capobianco:

It should be no surprise to many that the Premier and her government are moving left – some will say that she started left and hasn't moved. This all begins with the reason Kathleen Wynne won the leadership of her party, which many believe was with the hope that she would steer her party left, especially after the politics of former Premier McGuinty and his crew, who were conservative-light in many respects.

There have been hints at more centrist policies, not least of which was the Premier's desire to sell off Hydro One. But that was on the advice of Ed Clark - and only because the government was desperate to get the books balanced due to the massive overspending of the last 15 years of successive Liberal governments.

But centrist policies have been few and far between. The natural place for this Premier is to be on the left of the spectrum, and it will be interesting to see if the Liberals will try and claim that position from the NDP when the election is on. It has happened before in previous elections, and at both levels, the Liberals and NDP are often at battle to claim the progressive vote during campaigns.

The last federal election was a classic case study for the NDP on why they should stay in their comfort zone no matter what the situation is or the temptation to guide them to the right. They didn't fool anyone, least of which the voters, who actually were beginning to like Tom Mulcair but didn't know how to deal with his centre-right policies. This gave Trudeau and his team the perfect opportunity to claim the centre-left, and we know what happened.

The Liberals can play this game because they have always vacillated around the centre, tilting left or right depending on the leader and on the times, but the NDP can't and shouldn't play that game - nor should the Conservatives for that matter.


Richard Mahoney:

The question is a smart one. It recognizes the blizzard of measures that the Wynne government is bringing in as very progressive measures. Pharmacare for those under 25 years of age. Free post-secondary tuition for over 200,000 low and middle income students, and increased assistance for many others. A guaranteed basic income pilot project to help people, particularly those working and close to the poverty line - a potential revolution in the way we help people deal with the challenges of a finding work and getting by.

These build on a record of progressive measures too broad to detail, but include putting a price on carbon and dealing with climate change, closing down the coal plants, national leadership to bring in an enhanced national pension plan that will almost double pension benefits to Canadians, and huge investments in improving health care and education for Ontarians. Those are all progressive measures.

There are two things that I would say about that. First, John is right, it is not much of a surprise that Kathleen Wynne has brought in these recent measures. She leads one of the most progressive governments in North America, if not the most progressive government.

Secondly, many may see these measures as progressive or "left wing". But most Ontarians, including most of those who support right wing parties such as the Conservatives, support the extension of pharmacare. They support expanding access to post secondary education for many more Ontarians. They support the idea of a basic income for all of us so people who are struggling to get ahead, get a hand up.

So they may be progressive, but they have broad appeal to people across the political spectrum. People don't really think of themselves as left wing or right wing. But in these times, they want a government that does things that help people. I think that is the strategy more than a move to the left.  


Tom Parkin:

Kathleen Wynne is toast. Even Greg Sorbara agrees with me.

Wynne has the lowest approval of any Premier – a recent poll put her disapproval at 81% and approval at just 12%. Only 9% say she is their preferred Premier. A recent poll projection shows that if an election were held today she would lose party status.

A recent effort to push her out as leader, supported by former Campaign Chair Greg Sorbara, failed when apparently nobody else wanted to star as the Kim Campbell fall-guy/gal for the Liberals.

But it’s not that Wynne can’t win just because she’s low in the polls today. In theory, polls can change, even when a leader is that low (though I can’t think of an example of coming back from depths like these).

Wynne can’t win because there is no strategic path to a win – it’s blocked with the debris from her own broken trust. She can try shifting to the left or shifting to the right. But it’s exactly the shifting, partisan gaming and political calculation of everything that has resulted in so few people trusting her. The more she shifts and manoeuvres for partisan gain, the more people are reminded of why they don’t trust her. Government events and announcements are calculated for her partisan advantage – and people see it. Big decisions with big implications for Ontario – and big, big dollars attached – are made for her partisan benefit, not to benefit people. This political style is squandering Ontario’s opportunity.

Yes, Kathleen Wynne is toast. She will not get re-elected. Now the other two party leaders need to step forward, show us their vision, show us their style – and let Ontarians choose between them.


John Capobianco:

And a chicken in every pot! Don't laugh, it might as well be the case.

Richard ably lists the recent measures this government has brought in or is bringing in. However, do you notice something interesting?  It is all happening less than a year away from the election and with the Liberals down in the polls anywhere from 10-20 points.

This strategy was nowhere in the Premier’s sights even in last year’s budget or the last Throne Speech. But having said this, I give them credit for seeing the obvious and trying their hardest to course-correct the path they have been going down so badly. At least they are not oblivious to what is actually happening out there and are trying to do what they can to hold on to power.

However, Tom is right when he says that voters tend to be very savvy and understand clearly when someone is desperately trying to hang in, and that never bodes well. Measures are being brought in to cure the housing issue only when it has become a crisis - the same with hydro. These latest policies that Richard lists will be too little too late.

Trying to recovery from low poll numbers is one thing, but when your personal/popularity numbers are so low, that is much harder to recover from. There is no shortage of leaders who are examples of this.

The election is a year away and as we know, anything can happen. But to answer the question: when political parties start deviating far from their political lanes, it doesn't fool the voter.


Richard Mahoney:

While Tom and many in the NDP talk politics, Kathleen Wynne is bringing in progressive measures. I understand it does drive the NDP a little bit crazy. While they prattle on with populist policies designed, at least in some instances, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the Liberals bring in ideas like a universal pension plan. Who wasn't a little bit surprised when Andrea Horwath and the NDP opposed that measure? You would have thought they would support it, given the NDP's history, at least at the national level, of advocating for public pensions.

I think the NDP breaks faith with its base when it opposes measures they have always claimed to support. Ideas like the basic income, for example - they would have supported it. But in their partisan lust to vilify the Liberals, they end up opposing many of the ideas they are supposedly in politics to promote.

It is a good debate to have when we are discussing the ideas and motivation behind big ideas. I have always believed that government can and should be a force for good, bringing in social and economic reforms that help us build a prosperous and equitable society. Measures that reward ingenuity and creativity, but also help people participate in an economy that can be brutal and leave people behind. The challenge for the NDP is how do you explain opposing these measures?  When you pit the two leaders and their visions against each other, it is not surprising that many find Kathleen Wynne to be more impressive, and more progressive than Andrea Horwath.

Tom can go on about polls. But as he says, we are a long way from an election. This won't be the first time an opposition party declares victory more than a year before an election.

As we get closer to one, people will look at what each of these folks have to put on offer. Very little has been put on offer yet by either Opposition leader. To be fair to them, even when they do, most folks don't notice this far away from an election. But I look forward to a battle of ideas between all three of them, and all three parties, with ideas like these in the mix. They are good ideas. And they will have broad appeal to people from across the political spectrum. 


Tom Parkin:

What progressive voters – or the lowest common denominator, as you call them – now understand, Richard, is that there is a difference between political policies and political ploys.

In 2014, Wynne campaigned to be our social justice Premier – and won on that offer. But then she turned into the cash-for-access Premier. She didn’t keep her affordability promises. Not on the auto insurance promise. And when the cost of electricity skyrocketed, she threw environmentalists under the bus, suddenly agreeing with Patrick Brown that the problem was renewable energy. (The Auditor General reported the Liberals’ green energy market and its lucrative, 20 year fixed price contracts were paying twice the market rate for wind power and three and half times the rate for solar.)

She’s privatizing Hydro One. She pandered to Rob Ford’s anti-transit crew to win a by-election. She re-wrote legislation to politicize electricity planning – as if we haven’t suffered enough for that. Her increases to the minimum wage have been miserly. Her refusal to support Toronto’s social housing hurts the most vulnerable. Her foot-dragging on addressing part-time and temporary jobs is destroying incomes – the average Ontario wage, after inflation, has fallen 2% over the past twelve months.

That’s the opposite of social justice. Yes, she’s scrambled to propose some social democratic policies she rejected until a couple weeks ago. But it’s transparent what she’s doing and that her new populist zeal will expire the instant the votes are counted. Again, trust.

Meanwhile, Patrick Brown is on the sidelines because no one can ride two horses at once – and he can’t decide whether to ride social conservativism or free-market fundamentalism. So he does neither.

My simple advice to Andrea Horwath: don’t make the mistake you did last time. Be exactly who you are. Don’t shift to the left or the right. Just be a social democrat.

People want a leader who will fix government – fix health care, transit, housing and electricity. They want some justice and help for poor and marginalized people. They want a job and pay cheque that returns confidence to the economy and the province.

Just keep being that.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 








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