The Inside Agenda Blog

Our Conversation with the Premier

by Steve Paikin Friday February 22, 2013

Kathleen Wynne will appear on The Agenda tonight in her first feature interview since becoming premier 11 days ago. We hope you'll watch at 8:00 or 11:00 p.m. EST, or watch the interview in full right now, above, and then share your views with us.

We've pulled a few clips from the interview, too, including an admission from Premier Wynne that the Mississauga gas plants were cancelled in the dying days of the 2011 election campaign for purely political reasons, and at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to Ontario taxpayers.

Ever since she won the Ontario Liberal leadership four weeks ago tomorrow, I've been asking virtually everybody how they think Wynne's doing. What's interesting is that, regardless of political stripe, I'm hearing the same thing over and over. 

The day after Wynne won the convention, she held a news conference at a downtown Toronto hotel. After it was over, I bumped into a female teacher who had been protesting outside Maple Leaf Gardens the day before, to decry the government's Bill 115, which forced contract settlements on the province's elementary and secondary teachers. This teacher told me she had always voted NDP, but had to confess that she admired and respected Wynne so much that her vote might now be up for grabs.

I'm running into this everywhere. Cynics who hate politics have confessed they like what they see, that Wynne's obvious authenticity easily comes through the lens of the camera.

So it was with some interest that I read this morning's Forum Research poll, which essentially confirms (at least for this moment) all of what I've been hearing for the past month. Where the Liberals looked dead on arrival with Dalton McGuinty still at the helm, the party has indeed received a bump thanks to the leadership change. Forum says if an election were held today, the PCs would attract 36 per cent of the vote, followed by 29 per cent for the Liberals, and 28 per cent for the NDP. The Greens would attract 5 per cent support.

This suggests the Liberal bump in popularity has come almost entirely from the NDP, which has seen a corresponding drop.

Furthermore, where McGuinty's personal approval rating by the end had plummeted to 21 per cent, Wynne's is currently at 36 per cent. NDP leader Andrea Horwath still tops the charts at 49 per cent approval, while PC leader Tim Hudak still polls well behind his party in popularity, with just 27 per cent approving of the job he's doing.

I also frequently ask people whether Ontario needs a "clarifying" election. Are people champing at the bit to have a vote and get rid of the Liberals, who've been in power for nine straight years? Most folks tell me no, and the Forum poll confirms that. Just 34 per cent of Ontarians now want an election (essentially the PC vote), down from a significant 48 per cent who wanted one before Wynne took over. Now, 59 per cent see no need for an election, up from 45 per cent.

In other words, Wynne's mantra of trying to make this parliament work seems to be catching on.

Now, before the Liberals get all giddy about these numbers, let's remember a few other things.

  • Kim Campbell took over from a very unpopular PC Party leader in Brian Mulroney in 1993 and immediately enjoyed a bump in support as Canada's first female prime minister. But it didn't take long for a combination of her own missteps and Mulroney's legacy to torpedo that bump. It's a cautionary tale for Wynne, who's enjoying similar circumstances today.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wants a full-blown public inquiry into the gas plant fiasco.

  • The Ontario Liberals saw yet another stink bomb dropped on them on Thursday, when officials from the Ontario Power Authority had to admit they'd screwed up yet again, and found a third tranche of documents related to the Mississauga gas plant cancellation fiasco. New leaders can ill afford to have these kinds of surprises, reminiscent of the bad old days, constantly dropped on them.

MPP Vic Fedeli (PC - Nipissing) alleges political interference and ultimately sky-high costs to taxpayers thanks to the decision to scrap the Mississauga gas plant.

  • Two legislative committees are going to study the gas plant situation going forward, which virtually guarantees several months of negative headlines. The danger for Wynne is that the public may not care that these sins were actually committed by the McGuinty government rather than Wynne's government. The cast of characters running the show may be quite different today than it was 11 days ago when Wynne was sworn in as premier, but the reality is, they're all still Liberals.

Canada's 21st prime minister, Paul Martin, found his efforts to be transparent ultimately did him no good at all.

  • And let's not forget that it was a furious Paul Martin who took over from Jean Chrétien, vowing to get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal in Quebec. Martin called a public inquiry, promising to be transparent about everything. The resulting revelations damaged Martin's efforts to turn the page from the Chrétien era. Again, the similarities to the gas plant fiasco are eerily there.

Canada's 19th prime minister Kim Campbell was unable to right the PC ship after the Brian Mulroney years ...

To go back to the Mulroney/Campbell situation of 20 years ago, I remember interviewing both of them for a book I once wrote on people who go into public life. Campbell told me at the end of the day, no matter what she did, it wasn't enough to overcome the Mulroney legacy and the lack of adequate time he'd left her to repair the situation before she had to go back to the polls. For his part, Mulroney pointed out that is precisely what the job of the successor is: to champion the good things the previous administration did, and put a shiny coat of paint over the unpopular parts of the legacy. That's the job a successor signs up for, and at which Campbell ultimately failed.

... But Mulroney points out, that's the job of every leadership successor.

Of course, they're both right. And one of the most interesting unfolding stories at Queen's Park over the ensuing months will be whether Kathleen Wynne can do what Kim Campbell couldn't do, namely, erase the stench of the bad decisions made by her predecessor, while continuing to champion the things people actually liked about the Liberal government, such as an improved health-care system, full-day kindergarten, and shutting down pollution-spewing coal plants.

We'll watch that story, and hope you'll watch our conversation with Ontario's 25th premier.