What a start. Half of Kathleen Wynne's own backbenchers plus most of the NDP, including its female leader, skipped the swearing-in of Ontario's first female and Canada's only openly gay premier. That's some rebuff from the progressive sector she comes from and should appeal to. This will be challenging.
But Wynne is the most unexpected, intriguing government leader I've seen in Canadian politics. I base that largely on a test proposed by the late Alexander Cockburn, which I've mentioned before: if you were seated beside this politician on a long flight would you pretend to snooze so you didn't have to talk? With Wynne I definitely wouldn't. Yet it's hard to say why. Maybe it's because she doesn't seem a creature of party practices. Leaders like Bob Rae and Barack Obama looked different, too, but sewed themselves tightly into their party suits early on.
Wynne only became an active Liberal 10 years ago; she lacks a built-up party base or a social movement behind her. All she does is win elections. Voters respond: not just to what she says but how she seems to mean it. In that way she has something in common with -- brace yourselves -- Rob Ford. These candidates give voters a way to make a statement about themselves.
Beyond the schools mess left her by departing premier Dalton McGuinty, Wynne's biggest challenge will be ITFAC: it's time for a change. Anyone writing in this area knows from the mail how angry people are at the corruption and ineptitude of the late McGuinty years: wind farms, ORNGE, eHealth, gas plants -- it's exactly the mood that ushered McGunity in after the Mike Harris years. Wynne will be aided by the predictability of Tory Leader Tim Hudak. This week, he proposed "market discipline" and "incentives" for the universities to insure a "return on investment." It's nice to have an opponent who parodies himself.
Those NDP progressives, though, will likely opt against the public good and for party gain, as they usually do, splitting the votes with Liberals and likely leaving most Ontarians, who lean roughly left, with a premier Hudak. The only time they didn't do that was Bob Rae's 1985 NDP deal to put the provincial Liberals in power and guess what it soon led to: the sole NDP government in Ontario history. But don't expect them to factor that into their "strategy."
If I were to offer advice to Wynne, it would be: don't ignore the pros who circle around you. Listen to what they say because they have experience, but don't follow it because all they know how to do is take you where they've already been and at this point in the trajectory that means into opposition. So bypass the usual tips: posturing, promising, acting tough. It always works for a while and then it blows up, and your Liberals are now at the blow-up point.
What Ontarians need is credible assurance that you sincerely acknowledge mistakes and are more capable of redressing them than any new government. For that purpose I'd focus in the coming campaign, whenever it is, on a moment in your speech at the leadership convention. I don't mean the "Let's get this out on the table" moment, when you talked about your lesbianism. That's standard tactics: John F. Kennedy did it when he talked about his Catholicism; so did Barack Obama when he discussed his Reverend Wright problem and racism. Even Richard Nixon put it all out there in his Checkers speech in 1952.
I'm talking about the moment near the end of that powerful speech when you absolutely flubbed the climax. It was a nightmarish mistake. You immediately blurted, honestly and spontaneously, "Oooh" -- and that was the big line! Then you said exuberantly, "OK, I'm just gonna do it again," made a clearing-away motion with your hands, stepped back, stepped up again, and hit the rhetorical mark bang on. If you can handle major failure in public with such aplomb, who couldn't believe you'll face up to and fix the mess you're left with at Queen's Park? It's a moment anyone can identify with and aspire to.
And it expresses the exact appeal of Kathleen Wynne, whatever the hell that is.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.
Photo: Paul Schreiber/Flickr