When people outside Queen’s Park talk of Premier Kathleen Wynne, they often use the word “real” to describe her.
The political types use the word “authentic.” Either way, it is a true compliment.
After all, it was in many ways what got Wynne, and her party, through a difficult provincial election campaign.
Despite NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s bold pronouncement last week that people “voted out of fear (of PC leader Tim Hudak) and not for positive (NDP) change,” Wynne’s personality clearly connected with voters who were prepared to give the Liberals a "second chance" — and if not forget the gas plant scandal and other indiscretions, at least, for the time being, forgive the missteps.
Now, with MPPs returning to the Legislature for a rare, albeit short time of summer in the city, the words “authentic” and “real” must now apply to Wynne’s agenda.
A key to that is the Liberal budget – rejected by Horwath in order to force the election in the first place, which left the NDP in third.
Wynne’s ambitious blueprint for the province will be re-introduced by Finance Minister Charles Sousa next Monday.
It is guaranteed passage because of the government’s majority. But the pressure will be on Wynne to quickly become the activist centrist premier.
Heeding sage advice
“I promise you I will not let you down.”
Wynne uttered those nine very important words last week as she was sworn in along with her new, though mostly recycled, cabinet.
But of the 27 ministers, the words were perhaps most significant to veteran Jim Bradley (MPP for St. Catharines). While he's Wynne’s new Minister without Portfolio, he may, shall we say, have a lot of sage advice.
The 37-year-veteran, a holdover from the short-lived David Peterson era, knows all too well the pitfalls of majority arrogance: of promises made – and promises not kept – to “earn the trust of Ontarians every single day,” as Peterson said on the night of his majority victory in 1987. These words quickly faded from his political vocabulary.
There is the famous story of Peterson asking Bradley in a cabinet meeting what he thought of the government’s plan to spend millions of dollars on an opera house for Toronto.
Bradley is said to have responded, ”It won’t play well at the Mansion House” – a reference to a well-known St. Catharines watering hole for Brock University students and local residents.
Peterson quipped in response: “Bradley, you’re a cultural pygmy.”
Peterson’s long gone from the halls of Queen’s Park, while Bradley just won his 11th provincial election.
Ensuring that progress is made
Wynne would do well to heed Bradley’s opinions.
They could mean the difference between staying on the government benches (in the Legislature) and moving the "two sword lengths" away to the opposition benches, as the Liberals did when they lost in 1990.
The "real" part of the Wynne agenda will emerge quickly and that’s the bad news – the tough stuff, if you will – that the Liberals must accomplish and get out of the way in the first two years of their four-year mandate (with years three and four all about getting re-elected).
The premier has to keep her promises or, at the very least, demonstrate that they're on the government's radar and progress is being made.
And that means work on Wynne’s so-called “made in Ontario” pension plan – though there is concern that the premier chose a relative rookie in Scarborough MPP Mitzie Hunter to push the idea forward as the new Associate Minister of Finance.
Wynne says a lot of Ontarians need a provincial pension plan and if so, she and her government must show that it is in fact a priority for them, too.
Then, there’s the deficit. At just under $12 billion in round numbers, the commitment is to balance the books by 2017-2018.
Former health minister and now head of the Treasury Board Deb Matthews has been charged with finding balance – a balance that is likely to require some austerity by the Liberals that wasn’t spelled out in the election or has been defined since the vote.
Wynne herself talks of “some difficult choices” ahead, which is likely code for cuts – not the kind proposed in the PCs' “Million Jobs Plan,” but cuts nonetheless.
And tied to that is a huge and politically potentially dangerous job of negotiating new contracts with the public sector and teacher unions, of telling them the cupboard is bare and there is no money for wage increases.
For teachers who believe they’ve done their bit for the Liberals, it will be a bitter pill to swallow, and has already raised the prospect of a movie Ontario’s seen before: teacher work-to-rule campaigns or — in the extreme, though possible — picket lines at schools.
But — and this is something the unions will have to keep in mind — Wynne begins her four years of majority government this week with a huge amount of political capital, with the added pressure of very difficult decisions and very high expectations.
Wynne wanted a mandate to govern. She campaigned from one end of the province to the other with what she said was “a plan,” and now she must make it reality.
And if she doesn’t at least start to move the yardsticks on the issues facing the province and make good on her promises, one wonders what the patrons at the Mansion House will be telling Jim Bradley about this Liberal government.