Toronto·Analysis

Gas plant scandal charges are latest trust problem for Kathleen Wynne

“I will continue to work to earn your trust,” Kathleen Wynne said in her first speech as premier of Ontario. But has that promise been kept?

This Ontario government was supposed to be different from Dalton McGuinty's, but is it?

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is taking pains to remind Ontarians that the gas plant scandal didn't happen while she was premier. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"I will continue to work to earn your trust."

The words are Kathleen Wynne's. They were part of her first speech as premier of Ontario.

But, since that June afternoon in 2014 when she was sworn ­in, has that promise been kept? Has she in fact earned the trust of Ontarians?

The public opinion polls have been up and they have been down. While I am convinced that Wynne was sincere in her commitment at the time that things would be different, I am not sure they really are, even if some of the problems she now faces were inherited.

Case in point: the continuing fallout from the so-­called gas plant scandal, with the Ontario Provincial Police's anti-rackets branch announcing criminal charges Thursday against two senior staffers in Dalton McGuinty's office as premier.

It was an administration that Wynne was clearly and proudly a part of.

"I have no intention of disowning my record as a member of the McGuinty government," she said in the days following her election as premier.

But Wynne has also been at pains since becoming premier to separate herself from the scandal, publicly apologizing for "mistakes" that were made.

This was evident in her response to the new OPP charges — that they concern "events that took place prior to me becoming premier."

During the 2014 provincial election, Progressive Conservative supporters deployed a cutout of former premier Dalton McGuinty with Wynne to link her to scandals that emerged under her predecessor. (CBC)
Fair enough. But as a former member of the McGuinty cabinet, Wynne stills wears the fallout from the decision to cancel two Greater Toronto Area gas-fired power plants, in Oakville and Mississauga, one the auditor general says will cost Ontarians up to $1.1 billion,

She escaped her Judgment Day in the last provincial election only because, it can be argued, voters couldn't accept then-Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Since then, however, setting aside the gas plant scandal, Wynne has had issues of her own making.

It was not that long ago that the OPP issued another news release.

That one announced criminal charges in their investigation into the so-­called Sudbury byelection scandal, where it's alleged a job offer was made to a Liberal candidate to sit out the byelection because Wynne had convinced a popular local NDP MP to leave Ottawa to run as a provincial Liberal.

Politically, she called it correctly with Glenn Thibeault easily winning. Still, fingers were pointed at Wynne, her deputy chief of staff Pat Sorbara and a Liberal fundraiser in Sudbury, Gerry Lougheed Jr.

Eventually only Lougheed was charged in a case that has yet to be proven in court, though a political aroma still hangs over Wynne, and it is sure to become more intense once legal proceedings begin.

Other matters have called Wynne's "trust" promise into question.

Auditor general's indictment

The recent findings of the 2015 auditor general's report were an indictment of the government's record, ­­a serious challenge to Wynne's commitment to be "new and different."

Bonnie Lysyk outlined a long list of problems, from $140 million in social assistance mistakes to the slowness of inspections of nursing homes and school buses to Children's Aid Societies failing too often to perform basic background checks on the people involved with vulnerable children.

The government's response, as it has been in the past, was to "welcome" the report, while insisting its recommendations will be, or already have been, acted on.

There is also now word that the Wynne cabinet very quietly approved $58 million in raises for 8,400 senior civil service managers.

The Liberals knew, according to Treasury Board president Deb Matthews, the decision would be "unpopular" but it was something the government "had to do" to prevent a brain drain of senior managers out of Queen's Park.

If that's so and it was the right thing to do, then why keep it a secret? Why did it take the Toronto Star's Rob Ferguson to expose the story, a full day before Matthews confirmed it was correct?

All of this taken together represents political trouble for Wynne and her government, even with a provincial election still about two years away.

As the recent federal election demonstrated, voters have long memories and, if given a chance at change, they vote for it.

Wynne promised change. But her almost two-year-old government has shown signs of an arrogant streak, while facing serious and ongoing questions of mis­spending and scandal, past and present.

Now her 2014 pledge as she took office "not to let you down" is being sorely tested.

About the Author

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for CBC.ca. He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.

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