Kelly McParland: Will the Liberals dump a second unpopular premier to hang on to Ontario?

There’s trouble in the headlines for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

With her Liberals bumping along a solid third among voters, 20 points behind the little-known Patrick Brown’s Tories, Wynne threw her Hail Mary pass last week after suddenly concluding that power rates were too high. She announced a plan to slash them 17 per cent by the simple act of adding billions of dollars in extra interest – up to $1.4 billion a year – to the bill to be paid by future generations, on top of a debt that has spiraled to $300 billion via previous Liberal spending.

Rather than the hoped for hosannas, however, Wynne awoke Saturday to news that disgruntled colleagues may be plotting against her. The Toronto Star, the newspaper of choice for generations of Liberal faithful, suggested that if the power ploy doesn’t work, Wynne could find herself facing a rebellion.

Robert Benzie, the Star’s veteran Queen’s Park watcher, reported that “there are whispers at Queen’s Park about who might replace Premier Kathleen Wynne as Liberal leader” if her gambit fails to reverse the deep antipathy towards her and her government. One “grim-faced top Grit” told him: “Look, we can’t let the premier take the party down with her.”

This is serious stuff, coming from a newspaper that lives to promote eternal Liberal rule. No one should underestimate Liberal skills at backroom plotting. This is the party that ousted a prime minister after he had delivered them three successive majorities, because they thought his finance minister had a better chance of securing a fourth. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals follow a well-established practice of ignoring local preferences while parachuting in preferred candidates. Wynne’s Liberals have been just as ruthless in backroom manoeuvring, resulting in bribery charges under the Elections Act against two high-ranking party members over a 2015 Sudbury byelection.

Wynne owes her position to the departure of former premier Dalton McGuinty, who saw a similar collapse in Liberal support over his decision to cancel two power plants before an election, and spirited efforts by opposition parties to discover the true cost. After winning the contest to replace McGuinty, Wynne conceded that the party had blundered and pledged to repair the damage. Yet her latest energy minister – who just recently told utilities to stop cutting off people’s power in the middle of winter – acknowledged that Ontarians are still struggling with “sub-optimal” conditions. Wynne and her officials hadn’t appreciated the unfairness of asking Ontarians to pay the full cost of Liberal programs, but now see that “intergenerational fairness” demands some of the bill be piled on future taxpayers.

The good thing about future generations, of course, is that they’re not around to defend themselves. But even current generations may not be thrilled with the government’s habit of ratcheting up the debt load any time it gets into a jam. In a made-for-media moment, Wynne telephoned several Ontarians to personally explain her plan, only to run into a woman from Sturgeon Falls who questioned the added billions it will cost and suggested Wynne get some better aides because “you’ve got a team there working and some of those are really bad advisers.”

Benzie went so far as to speculate on seven possible replacements should the party conclude Wynne has to go. They included Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, despite a troubled performance as Ontario’s correctional services minister; Health Minister Eric Hoskins, best known for trenchant relations with Ontario’s disgruntled doctors; dulcet-toned Finance Minister Charles Sousa, whose Mulroney-like oratory can resemble a radio pitch-man flogging laxatives; and even Sandra Pupatello, who has the advantage of having quit politics after losing the leadership to Wynne in 2013 and thus can’t be blamed for anything that’s followed.

There’s already a bump in the road to new leadership, however. Wynne only sought the job after McGuinty stepped down of his own volition, and managed to win the next election thanks to an epically bungled Progressive Conservative campaign. Liberals who hope to repeat that feat have to contend with the fact the premier has no intention of giving them their wish.

“I’m going to run in the election in 2018,” she told the CBC after unveiling her power plan. “My job is not finished.”

Fear of her finishing her “job” may be just what frightens Ontarians, as three years of her leadership has seen the party sink to even lower levels than those that persuaded McGuinty to throw in the towel. Replacing an unpopular leader is one thing; forcing out a second premier in desperate hope of appeasing an angry electorate may be too much even for Ontario’s passive population. In the end, Wynne could be saved by her refusal to go quietly.

National Post by Kelly McParland

March 7th 2017

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