Walkom: Next Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne inherits a heap of trouble
Kathleen Wynne has tasted the sweet cup of victory. She may find it a poisoned chalice.
Ontario’s premier-designate inherits a Liberal government enmeshed in scandal and tarred by controversy.
As hundreds of delegates inside Toronto’s old Maple Leaf Gardens cheered the winner of Saturday’s Liberal leadership contest, thousands of protesters outside added a cold dash of reality.
Regardless of who leads it, this is a party — and a government — in deep, deep trouble.
The Liberals are at war with the province’s teachers. If Wynne sticks to the position she supported as a minister in Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet — a position that demands serious spending cuts in order to balance the province’s books — that war will be difficult to end.
More important, this is a government that, in crucial areas, has demonstrated terminal incompetence.
At base, the scandal around the air ambulance service, ORNGE, boils down to one fact: The Liberals allowed a Crown agency to spend public money wildly and perhaps improperly.
Similarly, the controversy over cancelled power plant projects — and the costs incurred — resulted from a singularly cavalier attitude toward public funds.
In Ontario, managerial competence matters. Once a government is deemed incapable of running the store, it is doomed — no matter how charming the leader. Former New Democratic Premier Bob Rae could testify to that
Indeed, governments anywhere can reach a point of no return.
Kim Campbell found that out when she took over the federal Conservatives from Brian Mulroney in 1993.
At the time of her leadership victory Campbell was a celebrity, lauded at home and abroad as a bold new face.
London’s Sunday Times called her a “pin-up prime minister.” The Washington Times referred to her as “Canada’s Madonna.”
Public opinion polls showed her far ahead of her Liberal rival, Jean Chrétien.
Yet when the inevitable election was called, Campbell’s Conservatives went down to stunning defeat. She lost her own seat; only two Tory MPs survived.
In part, Campbell was at fault. But in part, she never had a chance. After almost nine years of Mulroney, the party she represented was just too unpopular.
Nor is Campbell the only example of a leader who went down to ignominious defeat after taking over a party on the skids.
Rita Johnston suffered the same fate in 1991 after being elected to succeed disgraced British Columbia premier Bill Vander Zalm as head of the governing Social Credit Party.
John Turner took over the federal Liberals from Pierre Trudeau in 1984 — only to go down to defeat in the general election a few months later.
After 15 years of Trudeau, the voters were simply sick of Liberals.
In 2002, Ernie Eves inherited the leadership of the Ontario Conservatives from Mike Harris. Then he went on to lose the next election, a casualty, in part, of his predecessor’s take-no-prisoners approach to government.
So Wynne has quite a challenge ahead of her.
A new leader can rejuvenate a party. That’s what happened to the federal Liberals in 1968, when Trudeau took over from a tired Lester Pearson.
Ontario’s provincial Tories held onto power for more than four decades — in part because they replaced their leader every few years.
But in today’s Ontario, Wynne faces a Herculean task. She knows that. As she told delegates in her victory speech: “This was the easy part.”
And she is, for the Liberals, a logical choice. The new leader is bright and witty. She was a solid minister. Her speech Saturday was by the far the best. She presents herself as a classic Liberal — fiscally tough, socially compassionate.
But a lot of Ontarians are fed up with the Liberals.
Wynne will try to convince these voters that she is not Dalton McGuinty. But at the same time she must embrace him — as she did physically on the stage of Maple Leaf Gardens Saturday night.
It is difficult to see how she can escape that embrace.
Inside the Gardens, the delegates talked of change and renewal.
Outside, I suspect, Ontarians still view them as the same old Liberals.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
thestar.com – Opinion