Ottawa·Analysis

'Cuts versus Care': Could this be Kathleen Wynne's narrow path to victory?

If there is a path to victory for Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne — and that's a pretty big if — it's a two-pronged approach: remind voters of all the stuff the Liberals say they've done for them, and will continue to do if re-elected, while trying to paint PC Leader Doug Ford as an unacceptable option for middle-of-the-road voters.

The Liberal leader plans to show Ontarians she cares, while painting a scary picture of a future with Ford

Kathleen Wynne spent the first evening of the campaign in Ottawa-Vanier, one of the safest Liberal seats in the province. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

For first-time voter Vincent Hanaurt, it's the promise to raise the minimum wage to $15. For Therese Simbaqwira, a new Canadian from Burundi, it's concern about equality for women in the workplace. And for Margaret Singleton, it's all about leadership.

"She's energetic; she works hard," said Singleton, as she stood with a handful of Liberal sign-waving supporters outside the venue for Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne's first official campaign rally in Ottawa-Vanier, among the safest Liberal ridings in the province. "People don't really look at what she's done. I think there's a lot of misinformation out there."

'I don’t know what’s wrong with people if they think that Ford’s a better candidate. Ontario’s just going to go down the tubes,' says Liberal supporter Margaret Singleton. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

These supporters are the dream voters for the Liberals, and if the party has any chance at re-election, it's going to have to hang onto a lot more of them on June 7.

Run on record of 'care'

To say that Kathleen Wynne is facing an uphill battle is an understatement. Not only are they trailing well behind Doug Ford, the Progressive Conservative leader and unequivocal front runner, Wynne's Liberals are coming in third in some recent polls. Her likeability ratings are abysmal. In other surveys, as many as 80 per cent of the Ontarians say they want a change after 15 years of Liberal rule.

If there is a path to victory for Wynne — and that's a pretty big if — it's a two-pronged approach: remind voters of all the stuff the Liberals say they've done for them, and will continue to do if they're re-elected, while trying to paint Ford as an unacceptable option for middle-of-the-road voters.

And on the first day of the campaign, Wynne was already working both sides of that strategy.

During both a sit-down interview with CBC, and later at the rally, Wynne said she still believes "that government exists to do the things for people they can't do for themselves."

Having regretted her policy-centric answer to a debate question from Ford, who asked her how she lost her way as a politician — an exchange Wynne said kept her awake Monday night — the Liberal leader invoked her grandparents' experience helping the poor, with her First World War veteran grandfather accepting baked goods as payment for medical services and her grandmother setting up language lessons for Italian immigrants in Sault Ste. Marie.

Then she segued from that warm family anecdote to the reason she got into politics: Mike Harris, the 1990s PC premier who oversaw cuts to social services, including health care and education.

"We're at that point again," Wynne said. "Doug Ford wants to undermine and cut out public services, our health care, our education."

Wynne on Hydro One sell-off

4 years ago
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Liberal leader says Hydro One ownership change may have caught voters off guard. 1:18

Connect with as many voters as possible

​"Wynne needs to give people a real reason to vote for them and to worry people about the other side," said Phil Dewan, a strategist with public affairs firm Counsel who previously worked on former Liberal premiers' campaigns.

"Kathleen has to be able to show who she is. She's good at talking to people and a good campaigner." 

So expect to see her out — a lot. Media interviews, the barbecue circuit, as many meet-and-greets as 28 days will allow.

Members of her team, speaking on background, say despite surveys that show she is least-liked among the three major leaders, voters find her personable in one-on-one exchanges. Even if you don't agree with her, she's good at explaining policies and her reasoning behind unpopular decisions, such as partially privatizing Hydro One or raising the debt level to pay for infrastructure.

And while she defends giving long answers sometimes — "You can say simple things to complex questions, but it doesn't mean that they are right," she said — she's going to try to battle Ford's memorable slogans, such as "Six Million Dollar Man" in reference to the pay package of Hydro One's CEO, with her own slightly less pop-culturey one: "Cuts versus care."

Working to discredit Ford

While Wynne is reminding voters that the Liberals are promising public daycare for toddlers and $750 to each Ontario senior who wants to stay in his or her home, she's also going to be driving home the message that Ford can't cut four per cent of the budget, cut taxes, spend another $5 billion on transit for the Toronto area and not lay off workers or reduce services.

The PCs have said they will release a fully costed platform during the campaign.

Behind the scenes, the Liberals are doing everything they can to discredit Ford and his candidates.

They released tweets from prominent candidate Tanya Granic Allen that seemed homophobic and anti-Muslim, which led to her being tossed from the Mississauga Centre race, prompting outrage from some of the PCs' social conservative base.

Kathleen Wynne on campaign slogans

4 years ago
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Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne on giving long answers in the age of the soundbite. 0:24

Liberals also promoted a video that appears to show Ford making a deal with developers to build on the Greenbelt, a deal Ford was forced to abandon amid the following day's blowback. And just Wednesday, Ottawa-area Liberal candidates accused Kanata-Carleton candidate Merrilee Fullerton, a possible health minister in a future PC government, of being in favour of two-tier health care.

And, like any other campaign, the Liberals are hoping the PC leader will make a major blunder.

Ford is considered to be unpredictable. As a Toronto city councillor and right-hand man to his brother, the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, he was known for often verbally shooting himself in the foot. So, the odds of a major gaffe might be better than usual. The Wynne team is hoping that the more Ontarians see of Ford, the less they will trust him.

Battling on the right, and the left

So far, though, Ford's popularity is holding and his promise to change the way that math is taught to elementary school children will likely be welcome news to any parent who's ever sent their kid to Kumon.

And if fighting Ford on the right isn't enough of a challenge, Wynne also has to contend with the rising NDP on the left.

Wynne suggested Wednesday that the NDP sees "business as a barrier" — the New Democrats want to raise corporate taxes to pay for much of their platform — while the Liberals "see business as an integral part of a caring society." 

And perhaps recognizing Horwath's folksy appeal, Wynne has already borrowed her zinger from Monday's debate, calling on Ford "to have the guts" to tell people what cuts he'll make if elected premier. 

"Is there a chance? There's always a chance," said Dewan, the public affairs strategist, about the possibility of Wynne coming from behind.

"You never know what's going to happen in a campaign. And anyone who claims they do know what will happen is full of it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

With files from Elyse Skura

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