The broken promise of Kathleen Wynne

ADAM RADWANSKI

She spoke in an unscripted, down-to-earth sort of way that allowed her to present herself as a different sort of politician.

She projected a distaste for the way her scandal-plagued party had conducted its affairs to that point. She was a champion for that party’s relative outsiders, who wanted it to embrace something more idealistic than the crass pursuit or protection of power. She had herself been one of those outsiders once, a community activist who first tried to get nominated as a local candidate by taking on a star recruited by the party brass.

So, for those of us who watched closely as Kathleen Wynne ascended to the Ontario Liberals’ helm in early 2013, it was possible to believe that she was just what Queen’s Park needed – someone who would look at the embarrassingly outdated way that business was done at the legislature, and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

A little more than three years later, as the spotlight shines on the grotesque way in which Ms. Wynne’s cabinet ministers dole out access in return for large donations to Liberal coffers, that optimism has proved terribly unfounded. Far from being the solution, she is a big part of the problem – at least as much as Dalton McGuinty, her much-maligned predecessor.

It would not have been difficult for Ms. Wynne, when she took office, to quickly identify what needed fixing when it comes to money and ethics in Ontario politics. Following the lead of the federal government, and many provincial ones, she could have banned or heavily restricted corporate and union political donations, and lowered caps on individual ones. She could have stopped the practice of assigning fundraising targets to ministers, and put an end to those ministers headlining exclusive events at which they schmooze with a small number of people who pay thousands of dollars for the privilege.

At a bare minimum, she could have decreed that there would be no more mixing of government and party business – that never again would someone seeking policy change from ministers or their staff be encouraged to cough up, with implications that deaf ears would be turned if they did not. Instead, she appears, if anything, to have upped the ante.

Under her watch, ministers are by some accounts spending even more time than previously trying to meet those targets. As The Globe and Mail has reported, there have been roughly a dozen exclusive fundraisers in the past few months alone at which a small number of attendees have paid as much as $7,500 for face time with ministers. And veteran lobbyists say the money requests from staff have become more overt. For a former grassroots activist to have started trading access in a way she once would have railed against, there are no excuses.

Ms. Wynne cannot reasonably claim that she was co-opted by pre-existing Queen’s Park culture, or that her party’s operatives have run a bit wild while she has been busy running the province. She did not enter the premier’s office as a Pollyanna – not after serving in senior cabinet roles beforehand. And she is by all accounts more hands-on with party management and campaign preparations – including, presumably, the building of a war chest – than was Mr. McGuinty.

There’s an argument that her approach is more honourable, since it doesn’t involve a phony Boy Scout act that requires others to do her dirty work, but there is little doubt that she has thought through anything significant that happens under her watch.

Nor can she blame it on other parties having done similar stuff when they were in office, and continuing to hold their own expensive and exclusive fundraisers now. The Liberals are the only Ontario party to have won a provincial election this century; at this point, everyone else is playing by their rules.

Ms. Wynne may nevertheless have justified it to herself on the basis of what she is up against, and the danger of opponents rolling back her policies in favour of those with which she vehemently disagrees. That’s a common rationalization for any incumbent. One known to be unusually competitive for someone at her level – a Premier who cannot let meaningless and sometimes unwinnable by-elections pass without campaigning in them as though her political life depends on it – may be especially susceptible to it.

From her perspective, and that of her colleagues, perhaps the end will justify the means. If they win another mandate in 2018, and are able to cement a legacy in infrastructure and climate-change policy and other things that get them out of bed in the morning, and Ms. Wynne gets to leave on her own terms – well, maybe the fact that she had to give a bit of access and favour to people willing and able to pay up will seem worth it.

She might even be able to add new campaign-finance rules, being promised for later this year, to that legacy. But as welcome as those would be, they would come only after the heat became too much to bear, and after her party had waited long enough that it had a chance to build up a big financial advantage heading into the next election campaign.

Trying to take much credit, if and when she belatedly comes around, could make her all but a caricature of the sort of politician she once promised not to be.

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Follow  on Twitter: @aradwanski

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