I still think she’s salvageable, said someone normally NDP but who’s given up on provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath. She meant Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. It’s hard to recall the hopes Wynne once inspired and how fresh she seemed. Let’s refresh our memories.

When she ran for Liberal leadership in 2013, she’d be asked, portentously, if she really thought someone like her could succeed in Ontario politics. What you mean, she’d say brightly, is: Can a lesbian from Toronto become premier? The way she put it made you think: Perhaps. It was bracing and confident.

When she became leader against expectations, her first words to the party were, “Believe it or not, this was the easy part.” That made you believe, too, since she was telling the truth, and buoyantly anticipating an election.

There was also the fact she’d already been through the fire in her life: coming out, successfully making the transition with her kids and ex-husband. So she had nothing to prove about her basic worth, she’d done the hardest thing she’d ever have to do. Then, against the odds, she won the election.

What befell her since then? Whatever it is, came into stark relief with the emergence of Toronto mayor John Tory as a leader with the guts to do what most of us assumed Wynne would and he couldn’t. He’s now taken the position she should have, committing to a revenue increase in the form of road tolls. Voters aren’t even freaking out! Wynne has summoned the courage to merely say she won’t disallow it. Olé, premier!

When she was running for leader she too talked about needing new revenue tools, such as road tolls or a gas tax, to pay for indispensable public goods like transit. (Toronto, pathetically, has just two-and-a-half grubby, Lilliputian subway lines.) Yet in power the only real tool she chose was selling Hydro One. That was the moment we knew she was no longer who we thought. Slowly she turned … (As in the great vaudeville sketch: “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned….” Hydro in Ontario has been symbolically and historically associated with Niagara Falls).

Now CUPE, on behalf of the people of the province, is suing her over that sale. Her response, which I find sickening, is: “Broadening the ownership of Hydro One has everything to do with investing in the infrastructure projects.” As if you can expand ownership beyond the entire population of Ontario, who already own it. That statement is the measure of her capitulation. (Totally, she turned.)

Of course she’s no socialist. She’s a standard issue Liberal: social justice plus conventional economics. But her “broadening” lingo is sheer camouflage for giveaways to bankers and financiers. They’ll create nothing; Hydro already exists. They’ll buy it and milk it, like classical parasitic rentiers. Banks will grow fleshy on brokers’ fees. Her chief adviser, Ed Clark, recently headed one.

It’s metaphorically rich that Tory weighed in even here, rejecting the sale of Toronto Hydro for similar ends. He’s leaving Wynne in the dust and far to his right, as she left Andrea Horwath in 2014. The irony mounts when you think that Wynne defeated Tory years ago in a Toronto riding, leading to his resignation as provincial Conservative leader, in which role he’d opposed tolls! Proving what? Among other things: that Canadian politics isn’t dull, it’s lurid.

OK, that was the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what went wrong. She’s been excellent on social stuff like sticking with the new sex-ed curriculum (as McGuinty her predecessor didn’t), providing basically free tuition, and pension expansion. It seems simplistic and insulting but it’s hard not to notice that she struck out on what seems like the guy stuff: economics, taxes, selling Hydro. She deferred to the fellas — Clark, Don Drummond — on money matters.

Can she turn this around again (“Slowly … step by step, inch by inch”)? If so it might start with reversing the Hydro sale. I think that’s where she lost us; it seemed incomprehensible. Bill Davis reversed his own government’s Spadina Expressway when he became premier in 1971 and it gave him 14 years in office. He could’ve probably gone another 20. Plus Hydro has a near-Jungian archetypal status in Ontario’s unconscious. It’s a pretty identity-free place but water haunts it: the Great Lakes, James Bay, the northern woods, Niagara Falls — Hydro is Ontarian for water.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Canada 2020/flickr

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.