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Plenty of post-election lessons for Ontario leaders

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The unalloyed joy on the faces of the Liberal campaign team Thursday night was well-earned.

By any measure, Premier Kathleen Wynne's majority victory was a remarkable accomplishment. Remarkable to win a fourth term. Remarkable to survive the poisoned chalice left to her. Remarkable to win while promising to compete at the high end economically: to invest in education and infrastructure and pensions; to ask those who can afford it to contribute a little more in their taxes. Hers was a progressive agenda supposedly out of fashion. Remarkable, too, to win as Ontario’s first female elected premier, and as our first nobody-cares-but-all-of-us-are-proud-of-her out gay premier.

What now remains to be seen is whether Premier Wynne will act on her priorities and keep faith with her election commitments. Or whether what awaits Ontario next year is a repeat, on its 20th anniversary, of the 1995 Paul Martin budget. That budget put the federal government out of business as far as most Canadians can see; downloaded billions of dollars of federal deficit to provinces; deeply cut taxes for the wealthiest Canadians, engineering a disgraceful spike in inequality; and reduced the role of our national government to the scale it had in the 1950s.

Will Premier Wynne spend her well-earned mandate building on the "most progressive budget to be introduced in decades"? Or did Ontarians reject a Tory plan to fire 100,000 public servants this year, in order to fire more of them next year?

Ontario certainly faces intimidating fiscal challenges, which will have to be addressed on either the revenue or the spending side, or in some combination. Premier Wynne faces some tough choices.

Meanwhile, Ontario's two opposition parties have some thinking to do.

The Conservatives, we now know, will do this through a leadership convention.

What about the New Democrats?

Andrea Horwath led the New Democrats to their best electoral result since 1990. She is well-known and well-liked by the public -- two precious assets in a leader, which might take an additional campaign or two to establish with a new leader. She now knows the job.

Her opponents will say she was wrong not to support the Liberals in the House. She is entitled to answer that it is not her job to support the Liberals -- her job is to persuade citizens to support her own party. They will say she risked a Hudak government. The results show there was little danger of this. They will say she traded away the opportunity to influence the Liberals in a minority legislature. There is something to this (as I'll argue shortly), but Horwath might say she also traded away the baggage of having to support the Liberals.

But while Horwath has earned the right to remain in her job if she wants it, there are some important lessons to learn from the past six months.

One is rooted in some advice former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney gave to federal NDP leader Jack Layton during the 2004-2006 Liberal minority government.

Blakeney told Layton not to be too eager to take down a minority parliament in which the NDP had some power for what the public would see as purely political reasons. "If you set out to persuade the public that minority legislatures don't work, you might succeed in your cause," Blakeney told Layton -- not necessarily to the NDP's advantage.

Layton took this advice to heart, and attempted to manoeuvre (in a very complex parliamentary setting) to squeeze some concrete gains for Canadians from the Liberal minority. And to be clearly seen by the public to be doing so. This led to the 2005 federal NDP budget, which invested heavily in public transit and housing, and deferred still more regressive and unnecessary tax cuts proposed by the Liberals. Layton was then able to build on those gains, and after much additional interesting political history, ultimately supplanted the Liberals in Parliament.

That's not what the public saw the Ontario NDP do in the winter of 2014.

A deeper engagement in getting results in the House, while leaving the onus on the government to trigger its own fall, might have provided a better frame for this election.

The second lesson is about the basic viability of progressive politics.

Time will tell who really got elected last Thursday -- Premier Wynne, or Finance Minister Martin?

Citizens voted for the Wynne they saw on television. Surely then, this tells us there is room for an unapologetic progressive politics -- one that engages with equality; competes economically at the high end; invests in education and training; cares about poverty; invests in cities; and thinks about the environment, while minding the public purse. That's what Ontarians think they voted for last week. Turf that, and Andrea Horwath may well have it all to herself next time.

Image: Wikimedia commons

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

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