Will Premier Wynne Be Transformative?

by Peter Russell

A friend of mine watching Kathleen Wynne as she worked her way to victory in the Ontario Liberals Leadership Convention, commented that she might turn out to be a “transformative” leader.

He may well be right.

Listening to her field reporters’ questions about how she might change the “Liberal brand,"  I could sense what my friend meant. Wynne side-stepped how she might refashion the Liberal Party brand, and went straight to discussing policy issues.

Then in discussing policy matters, instead of making snide remarks about the opposition parties, the premier-elect talked about reaching out to the opposition parties to see if together they could come up with good solutions to the problems currently facing the province.

How refreshing that was!

At the federal and provincial level of politics, for far too long, parliamentary government has been in abeyance, as prime ministers and premiers run government like CEOs of corporations bent on selling their partisan product to citizen-consumers. Selling the brand and hammering what the competition have on offer is the essence of leadership in that style of government.

Wynne’s strong commitment to summon the Legislative Assembly as soon as possible and get parliamentary democracy up and running again in Ontario clearly differentiated her from her principal rival for the Liberal leadership, Sandra Pupatello.

Unlike Gerard Kennedy, the other non-MPP candidate, Pupatello wasn’t willing to have the House sit while she was seeking a seat in a by-election. Premiers who govern like corporate CEOs don’t need parliaments.

In explaining how she will deal with the Legislative Assembly when it is recalled, there was no place in Wynne’s comments for Dalton McGuinty’s foolish and arrogant talk of heading a “major minority government.”

Wynne realistically accepts her government’s minority position and the need to reach out to the opposition parties to find common ground on key policy issues. Indeed, she wasted no time in talking with the opposition party leaders.

Admitting that your own party does not have all the answers and acknowledging that your government might have something to learn from the opposition is very different from the CEO-type of leadership. It is, however, the only kind of leadership that can make “hung parliaments” functional for a reasonable period of time.

There are also indications that under the Wynne government, cabinet and caucus will play significant roles in governing and not be subordinated to unelected spin-masters and political tacticians in the premier’s office.

The Wynne government may also give more weight in policy-making to the professional advice of the permanent civil service, one of the great resources of Ontario government, than to the views of those who manage the governing party’s political fortunes.

In the Wynne era, if there is one and her government isn’t quickly brought down by the Conservatives and the NDP, governing promises to be discursive. It will involve a lot of talk and consultation before there is action. It will not be a series of top-down pronouncements by the premier and strict containment of debate by political managers.

I think Wynne is prepared to deliver this kind of government. The question is - are we ready for it?

At the popular level, I believe we the people are ready for a more discursive, less corporate and less partisan approach to governing. Almost everyday a new organization, or movement or blog pops up urging that something be done to restore democracy in this country.

The people are ready, but I am not sure the media are.

Many of those who cover politics in our country have grown cynical about democracy. They tend to see political opportunism lurking behind everything government and opposition do. And they love fights. For those who manage the news in democracies, if there is no conflict, if no one wins and no one loses, there is no news.

When election time comes there will be vigorous partisan competition. In the election campaign, a Wynne-led Liberal party will battle vigorously against the Conservatives, NDP and the Greens as it makes its case for being the best group to govern the province.

But lets hope that this partisan campaigning can wait for a while, and we have a chance to see if Kathleen Wynne’s premiership can usher in a truly transformative era of politics.

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : February 04, 2013

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