Ontario Votes 2014·Analysis

Kathleen Wynne's Walkerton visit a risky attempt to define campaign

Kathleen Wynne's stop last week in Walkerton, Ont., site of a tainted water tragedy 14 years ago, carried with it an unmistakable attempt to draw attention to the cuts in rival Tim Hudak's Million Jobs Plan announced days earlier. Will those two events be the campaign's defining moments?

Tim Hudak stole headlines with his plan to create 1 million jobs - but opened the door on cuts

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, right, tours the Walkerton Clean Water Centre last week at the site of a deadly E. coli outbreak 14 years ago. Wynne's visit came just days after Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak announced plans to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

When someone eventually writes the history of the 2014 Ontario election, there will be two events remembered as early "defining moments."

One will be Tim Hudak's Million Jobs plan unveiled in its entirety last week in Toronto; the other,Kathleen Wynne's brief but powerful visit to Walkerton the same week.

As the 14th anniversary of the town's tainted water scandal approached, the Liberals took their campaign to Walkerton's Clean Water Centre to announce a 10-year, $30-million commitment to its work — essentially two lines in what was a four-page speech read by Wynne.

Her real purpose behind the visit was to deliver a message designed to draw attention to the 100,000-plus job cuts contained in the Hudak plan.

"Cuts have consequences; safe drinking water is not an optional service," said the Liberal leader. Her comments quickly reached Hudak, who dropped his perpetual campaign smile to accuse Wynne of trying to score political points on the back of a tragedy.

"It's disappointing. It's sad," said Hudak, who suggested Wynne was simply following the "Dalton McGuinty playbook," referring to the former Ontario premier.

The PC leader also vaguely pledged, as premier, not to cut water inspectors as he works towards balancing the province's books by 2016.

But his line "I don't think anybody would even contemplate that" leaves Hudak some wiggle room — just as his mentor Mike Harris once promised not to close hospitals as part of his plan, but later did.

Risky politics

The Wynne message — coming as it did in Walkerton, where more than a decade ago seven people died and hundreds became ill because of E. coli in the town's water supply — was powerful, and politically risky.

She began her remarks on a high note.

"Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath and I share both the understanding and the confidence that no leader … would ever, consciously or intentionally … follow a policy that would risk another [Walkerton] tragedy."
Just in case the point was lost on anyone, Liberal staffers handed out summaries of Justice O'Connor's report of the Walkerton inquiry into the town's tainted water scandal. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

But, as reporters digested that, Liberal staffers just happened to have copies of the Walkerton inquiry report to hand out to reporters — a report that said cuts by the then-Harris government had contributed, in part, to the tragedy in May, 2000.

"Decisions have consequences" was the central and oft-repeated phrase in Wynne's prepared remarks and in her off-the-cuff — but well-rehearsed — answers to reporters' questions.

The Walkerton stop and Wynne's remarks carefully did not draw a straight line between the tragedy that hit the town of 5,000 and Hudak's plan.

Rather, Wynne will allow voters to make that connection between now and election day since directly connecting the dots would have only served to have amplified the potentially negative fallout.

Case in point: The 2004 federal election.

Then NDP leader at the time, Jack Layton, was deeply troubled by the state of homelessness in his hometown of Toronto and the deaths of dozens of people living on the street.

So, in an attempt to dramatize the need for affordable housing in the wake of cuts by Paul Martin, Layton lashed out with a clear message that Martin was responsible for the deaths.

"I've always said I hold him responsible for that," said Layton at a Toronto NDP nomination meeting.

The reaction was swift and harsh.

Layton faced a lot of criticism that he had simply gone "too far," even though homelessness was a legitimate and pressing problem in Toronto and elsewhere in the country and his concern was real.

Perhaps that's why Wynne was more measured in her approach last week, carefully and deliberating stopping short of saying the PC leader's planned job cuts would or could cause another Walkerton.

After all, her handpicked campaign manager is David Herle, who was a key Liberal adviser in 2004 federal campaign and would well remember the political landmine Layton stepped on.

Still, Wynne has taken some heat for her Walkerton comments.

Defining choices

Had the roles been reversed, it is a near-certainty Hudak would have taken his bus to Walkerton and levelled similar criticism. And, given his gas plant comments about Wynne, he might have been much more direct than she was about him.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak dominated the headlines in the early days of the Ontario election campaign with his Million Jobs Plan. The Liberals have seized on the part of his plan that promises to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs first. (The Canadian Press)

It's politics and there is a lot at stake, as both Hudak and Wynne work to define who they are and the kind of government they would bring to Queen's Park.

Wynne carries the baggage of McGuinty, Hudak of Mike Harris and the time he served as a loyal and enthusiastic member of cabinet — a cabinet determined to "cut the red tape" and move government out of people's lives.

Hudak still believes that and has said that as he premier, he would plan to "drain" the red tape swamp — and that's why there is concern about his planned cuts and how far they will go.

Will the Tories include water inspectors in their cuts at some point?  Nobody knows. Even Wynne has conceded that, though as she campaigned in Toronto two days later, her list of Hudak cuts included "water inspectors."

It may be a case of the more you raise the issue, the more it might gain traction with voters.

But even the Conservative MPP who represents the Walkerton area, Lisa Thompson (Huron-Bruce), complained as recently as March about red tape surrounding Ontario's water regulations, what she called "the ridiculousness of regulations."

So for both Hudak and Wynne, Walkerton is a key symbol: A little desperation of trying to get away from the past and a lot of attempting to define the future.

And, riding on it, quite possibly the result of June 12 election.


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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