Robert Fisher: Warrior premier is a role Wynne can play

In her early days as Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne has tempered her preference for talking out conflicts with a willingness to play tough.

Puts foot down in debate over casino revenues

Since taking the lead of the Ontario Liberal Party, Premier Kathleen Wynne has shown a willingness to reach out to other parties, but she has also mixed it up with opposition leaders during question period. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

At the January Liberal leadership convention Sandra Pupatello’s campaign circulated a button with the words "Warrior Princess," but the word "Princess" was crossed out in favour of "Premier."

That, of course, did not happen.

Kathleen Wynne beat Pupatello even as many within the Liberal party wondered if she would be able to become a "Warrior Premier."

Wynne has been premier for about a month and a half and in that time has shown that while she favours conversation and compromise, she is no political push-over.

Day after day in the morning question period she has given as good (or better) than she got.

She has mixed it up — verbally — with Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and his caucus and NDP leader Andrea Horwath and her MPPs.

She has steadily handled some hot political potatoes left on her desk by Dalton McGuinty. Chief among them: the closing of two gas-power plants in Liberal ridings and the ongoing scandal at Ornge Air Ambulance. Now add another item to that list: casino revenue sharing.

It was outside the legislature last week that Wynne showed she has become, for all intents and purposes, the "Warrior Premier."

Taking a stand on sharing casino revenue

Pressed on the issue of so-called hosting fees from Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to communities wanting casinos, Wynne was clearly agitated that the city of Toronto was being promised a sweeter deal than other cities in the province: somewhere between $50 and $100 million, while others had a $20-million deal on offer.

So unlike McGuinty and his finance minister Dwight Duncan — who gave the OLG carte blanche on the gaming file — Wynne put her foot down.

She called OLG chair Paul Godfrey and his right hand man Rod Phillips to the Queen’s Park wood shed to tell them there will be no special deal for Toronto and sent them back to the drawing board on the revenue sharing issue.

The fact that Wynne privately and publicly took on Godfrey — one of the smartest and toughest political operatives in the province — is a mark of just how comfortable Wynne has become in her role as premier.

Wynne’s action and words were a kind of postscript to her convention speech in which she said that while she’s clearly from Toronto, she planned to govern, as premier, for all the people of Ontario.

That’s important for a premier facing critically important byelections in Windsor, London and (potentially) a provincial election. She needs support from across the province, not just in vote-rich Toronto.

Wynne has also matched her toughness with a lot of talk. Some, even people in her own party, are skeptical about the approach but Wynne can point to "moving the yard sticks" on a few key issues, including the dispute with Ontario’s teachers that is slowly coming to an end with extra-curriculars returning to many public elementary and secondary schools across the province.

There is a drinking game among some members of the Queen’s Park press gallery. Players take a drink every time Wynne uses the word "conversation."

At her party’s annual heritage dinner fundraiser in Toronto this week, Wynne poked fun at reporters and herself, telling the story and then drinking from her water glass and asking if her audience had their glasses full.

Why? Because the message from Wynne is that she’s now in charge and there will be a lot more conversation with the opposition parties and groups outside of Queen's Park.

Wynne says "that’s how you figure things out" but her party’s also figured out that Wynne’s onto something.

Her approach, so far, is working. Wynne’s got the Liberals up in the polls across Ontario and, particularly important, regaining support lost in Toronto by McGuinty.

In politics, it is said that a week can be a lifetime.

So, something could happen — maybe next month’s provincial budget — to take the wind out of Wynne’s sails. But it won’t be for a lack of talking and trying to do things differently and in her view, better.