Wynne has her gas-plant moment with about-face on Toronto tolls



Wynne has her gas-plant moment with about-face on Toronto tolls

There comes a moment, late in some political leaders’ careers, when their abandonment of what they once believed crystallizes in a single, desperate attempt to preserve their hold on office a little longer.

For Dalton McGuinty, Kathleen Wynne’s predecessor as premier of Ontario, it was the cancellation of a planned gas-fired power plant – not the scandal that followed, involving his government’s handling of the costs related to that about-face and a subsequent, similar one, but the initial cave-in. Having to that point prided himself on standing up to NIMBYism as the province built energy supply where it was needed, Mr. McGuinty decided, a year out from his final election as Liberal leader, that it just wasn’t worth incurring the wrath of the suburban swing riding where the plant was to be located.

Now, Ms. Wynne has her own version. Maybe it won’t prove as disastrous in terms of the financial and ethical fallout. But if anything, her decision this week to block Toronto’s municipal government from introducing road tolls on the city’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway is an even more poetic symbol of what power – and the fear of losing it – does to people.

Read more: Bitter over tolling veto, mayor says Toronto being treated like child

Marcus Gee: Wynne’s veto of Toronto road toll plan is an act of political cowardice

That’s because back when Ms. Wynne won her party’s 2013 leadership contest to succeed Mr. McGuinty, she not only supported road tolls or dedicated taxes as a way of funding upgrades to transportation infrastructure, she held up that support as the definitive sign of principle and courage that would breathe new life into the tired government she inherited.

Mr. McGuinty, his successor’s team was not shy about hinting, had lacked the stomach to introduce such levies, even though there was lots of evidence they were needed. Ms. Wynne would set herself apart by going where he had feared to tread.

Within a few months, she was retracing her steps down that path. A new campaign team – brought in when she responded to some disappointing by-elections by jettisoning people who had steered her leadership win – advised her that tolls were a loser with voters. So out that idea went, supplanted – as her differentiation point – by a proposal for a new provincial public pension plan, which tested better.

Still, you could believe – and Ms. Wynne almost certainly did – that she hadn’t done a complete one-eighty. It just wasn’t the time. Maybe later.

Well, now it is later. Toronto Mayor John Tory, with whom she enjoyed a close relationship to this point, proved willing to go beyond abstract talk of tolls and actually propose a specific one. City council, not usually known for its fortitude, went along with it. By initially making positive noises, Ms. Wynne demonstrated that she still thought this was an okay idea – as long as someone else took most of the heat.

Then even that proved too much for her, and she decided that she couldn’t afford to let Mr. Tory be bold, either. Little more than a year out from the next campaign, her party’s polling numbers are already brutal. Fees on suburbanites entering Toronto’s core, which provincial opposition was already trying to pin on her, could make them worse. Better just to send a wad of provincial cash the city’s way – not as much as the tolls were expected to raise, mind you – and make the problem go away.

Never mind whether tolls are a good idea. Ms. Wynne thought they were – still thinks so, as far as anyone knows. The point, as she once set out, was not just to fund particular projects but to start a new, sophisticated conversation about how we pay for necessary infrastructure. Now, she’ll prevent anyone from having that conversation if doing so moderately improves her chances of another term – one that nobody, Ms. Wynne included, seems to know what she would do with.

It’s not inconceivable it will help in that regard. Mr. McGuinty did manage to keep office after the gas-plant cancellations, albeit reduced to a minority government he would have won anyway – and one that he seemed to regret seeking by the time he resigned. The ability of Ontario’s opposition parties to improbably give the Liberals another lease on life should not be underestimated, based on recent history; neither, in fairness, should Liberal operatives’ ability to plot election strategy.

It is equally possible it will make matters even grimmer for Ms. Wynne. What precisely infuriates most Ontarians about their Premier can be difficult to put a finger on; most of the biggest policy grievances (most notably energy prices) were inherited from Mr. McGuinty, yet Ms. Wynne inspires a level of antipathy he rarely did until the very end of his premiership. Sexism and homophobia, the worst examples of which her office recently flagged, probably contribute to some of it. But so, too, does a sense that a disarmingly genuine long-time activist who promised to bring a different sensibility to provincial politics has instead come to look – through scandals and compromises and cynical ploys – like a very typical politician indeed. And the obvious calculations behind her latest walk-back fit right into it.

Whatever the benefit or fallout with voters from this week’s decision, it’s around this point that Ms. Wynne should be asking herself why she’s even bothering – why she still wants to be premier, beyond the creeping fear of any incumbent of being replaced by some barbarian at the gate.

The Kathleen Wynne who presented herself as an antidote to the cynicism that Mr. McGuinty allowed to overtake him might look at her slim re-election prospects in next year’s provincial campaign and see the remainder of her mandate as a chance to do tough things she believes in. But it feels now as though she’s passed the point of no return, letting that cynicism overtake her as well.

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The broken promise of Kathleen Wynne


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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