Robert Fisher: Wynne or lose, cabinet picks will be key

The heat will be on Charles Sousa and Liz Sandals in their new posts in Kathleen Wynne's cabinet.

Liberals unable to bring Pupatello into the fold

Kathleen Wynne, right, was unable to convince her leadership rival Sandra Pupatello to run in Windsor and join her cabinet. (John Rieti/CBC)

Ontario’s new premier is renovating her Toronto home and now she’s renovating her "home away from home" — with a new 27-member provincial cabinet Kathleen Wynne says she "always wanted and planned on."

Wynne’s cabinet offers something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (as in some of her right-of-centre cabinet ministers).

Charles Sousa, a leadership candidate who crossed the floor to support Wynne and stop Sandra Pupatello, the second-place finisher at the Jan. 26 leadership convention, seems a safe and solid bet in the finance portfolio. He has a CV that’s as important for the Liberals on Bay Street as it is on Main Street. 

Sousa’s first budget will largely determine whether the Liberals' "best before" date is up, if not with voters then with the opposition Conservatives and New Democrats.

Sandals makes a big step up

Liz Sandals in the Education Ministry comes with some risks. But Laurel Broten’s demotion to Intergovernmental Affairs is a clear sign the new premier wants and needs to turn the page on the province's dispute with teachers.

Sandals is making a big leap from the backbench to a senior and critically important cabinet spot.

She was Wynne’s parliamentary assistant when the premier was education minister, and they’ve known each other since their days on the Ontario School Boards Association.

Sandals will have the responsibility of calling in her "education IOUs" to bring labour peace to the classroom.

But one suspects Wynne will still be very closely involved in that repair job — aware that without it re-election, even as a minority, will be difficult if not impossible.

The rest of the cabinet includes a predictable cast of women and men from urban and rural Ontario. These are cabinet spots new or repurposed, designed for local consumption, to ensure as much as possible the ridings stay in the Liberal fold in the next election.

Wynne is counting heavily on her new cabinet — even the nine rookies — to show Ontarians that things will be done differently than they were under Dalton McGuinty.

But she was as much a part of the party's past as she will be of its future. And that future is uncertain right now.

A new poll — released just before the swearing-in ceremony — makes clear how much of an uphill battle it may prove to be.

Similar to other polls, the Abacus Data poll suggests the three main political parties are virtually tied for support. The order remains Conservatives first, New Democrats second and the Liberals in third.

The poll suggests the premier has yet to receive a major post-convention bounce in popularity. It also suggests that while the Liberals lead in Toronto — and that’s important — they trail in all other parts of the province.

Those numbers are sure to change, but in which direction for the new premier?

Wynne is off to a good start. Even opposition members privately acknowledge that.

But saying she was unhappy with some of "the challenges" faced by the McGuinty government of which she was a part, will now have to be backed up with concrete action and change.

When she tells Liberals as she did after winning the leadership that that was "the easy part" she knows that wasn’t just a convention floor quip, it’s a part of her new reality as premier.

Courting Pupatello

Wynne’s office had courted Pupatello, the second-place finisher in the Liberal leadership race, to be part of her cabinet.

Wynne’s office admits attempts were made to bring Pupatello into the fold. But no one is saying exactly what was on offer although it has been suggested that the finance portfolio could have been hers.

But the former Windsor MPP and cabinet minister is said to be considering her options, even though the premier would like her to run for election or be involved in the party because she has "lots to offer" as a "party stalwart."

Fine words that are sincerely meant. But can you imagine Wynne chairing a cabinet meeting with Pupatello and Eric Hoskins, who also ran for the leadership, at the same table, after Pupatello accused him of double-crossing her and going to support Wynne at the leadership convention?

Or the awkwardness of Hoskins, who is the new minister of economic development, trade and employment, having to going to Pupatello as finance minister to seek funding?

Wynne’s got enough trouble without creating war around her own cabinet table.

Still, Pupatello is a politician with ample skills that could be used by the Liberals in a non-elected role: fundraising, recruiting candidates and working alongside Greg Sorbara, chair of the Liberals' election campaign, on campaign readiness.