Always ahead of her time, Kathleen Wynne has some advice as she prepares to leave Queen’s Park

Posted on April 6, 2022 in Governance History

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion
April 5, 2022.   By Martin Regg Cohn, Political Columnist

Where once Kathleen Wynne commanded an entire government of 60,000 public servants, trailed by political courtiers and surrounded by OPP bodyguards, today she is an army of one. A rebel without an entourage, Martin Regg Cohn writes.

Kathleen Wynne could not be further removed from the premier’s office she once ruled.

Four years after she moved out from the locus of power, she is perched on the fourth floor of the legislature’s outer reaches: Room 420 is tucked away at the very end of a hidden wing, with a single staffer answering constituents’ calls (and responding to my knock at the door early one morning).

Where once Wynne commanded an entire government of 60,000 public servants, trailed by political courtiers and surrounded by OPP bodyguards, today she is an army of one. A rebel without an entourage.

And so I keep her company for the day, watching and walking — quickly — with the formerly powerful premier, trying to keep up. These are Wynne’s last days in public office before she walks offstage.

On Thursday she will give her farewell speech in the ornate chamber where she sat for 19 years as a parliamentarian. And where she still stands her ground, as she did this week when Progressive Conservative MPPs heckled her with abandon for daring to question them.

And as she did in the aftermath of defeat, when a government backbencher challenged her for continuing to serve her Don Valley West riding as a mere MPP: “Why are you still here?”

Defeated prime ministers and premiers tend to lie low when they fall from power, resigning their seats to sit on corporate boards, or showing up only to take their leave. Wynne had the gumption and ambition to run for premier, but she never shied away from the role of MPP in the aftermath of defeat.

“It’s been hard, it’s not an easy thing to just sit in the legislature,” she muses.

The hecklers tried to make her eat humble pie. Wynne wouldn’t bite.

“Honestly, being an MPP is what I ran to do in 2003, and I’m an MPP again, and it’s a huge privilege,” she insists. “That’s important work.”

Wynne, 69, will have the last word Thursday, but for the heckling. After that, she will pack up, move out and move on, a historical figure who refuses to live in the past.

Possibly Premier Doug Ford will listen and learn Thursday, for unlike his fellow Tories he stopped heckling her long ago, instead paying tribute to her in public while talking to her in private. Ontario’s 26th and 25th premiers made their peace early on in the pandemic, after she publicly downplayed one of his missteps (he’d told people to travel without fear, then recanted).

When Wynne defended him on talk radio, a grateful Ford rang her up and asked for advice.

“He called me after that, and he thanked me for what I said,” Wynne recalls. “He says, ‘Do you have any advice?’

“I said, ‘Are you really asking that?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’

“I said, ‘So you need to be out at the microphone. With Christine Elliot your (health) minister there, and you need to be there every day. Because people need to understand what’s going on.’”

Whether Ford heeded her or not, “That is what he ended up doing because that is what you have to do.”

There is more warmth from Ford than from the New Democratic Party’s Andrea Horwath, with whom Wynne shared a tense relationship during the Liberal minority government she helmed until 2014, before winning a majority at the NDP’s expense:

“Andrea and I have never had a close collegial relationship,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “But we’re perfectly civil.”

Wynne made history as Ontario’s first woman premier and (openly) gay leader in 2013. She was the big winner of an unexpected majority government in 2014, and a big loser in 2018 as the Liberal dynasty belatedly died.

Victorious in 2013 and 2014. Vilified in 2018. Valued again in 2022?

Everything old is new again. The pioneering ideas Wynne fought in vain for are back in vogue after the realities of the pandemic:

Child care. Check.

Pharmacare. Check.

Paid sick days. Check.

Minimum wage increases. Check.

Basic income support. Check.

Wynne’s defeat led to the demise of her reforms in all these areas, as Ford’s Tories systematically dismantled what she had built. Within days of taking power, the PCs pulled the plug on her OHIP+ drug program and then went down the list.

Now, in the cold light of COVID, they are coming back — federally, provincially, or both — even if only partly. And belatedly.

Was Wynne ahead of her time? Or was she the wrong leader for the wrong time?

The former premier has had four years to ponder her rise and fall from power. Today, her corner office is quiet, the buzz is long gone, the long lineups of people and players importuning her for private time and public money are no more.

But Wynne is still on the job. She strides out of her forlorn office to meet cancer survivors on the legislature’s front lawn, lobbying for better government supports. She stops and talks — and listens — to 30 activists, each telling their stories, one at a time.

Hearing them out, does she feel regrets? Does the unfinished business of government weigh her down?

“Emotionally, I respond with ‘I wish we’d been able to do more, I wish I’d done it sooner, I wish we’d done it bigger.’ But rationally, when I look at what we tackled, we tried to do a lot — you (the media) told me that we did too much!’

“People don’t want that much change,” she says. “We were trying to take a leadership role, we were trying to push on where public opinion was and understand where public opinion was going.”

Wynne says she is still listening and learning, notably by teaching a third-year politics course at the University of Toronto. Leaving the legislature behind after a morning of debates and protests, she walks across campus, accosted by admirers:

“I’m a big fan!” a man calls out as she walks to class.

Seated around a long table, 20 students debate political ethics as Wynne presides — not unlike the cabinet meetings she convened when in power. These students were in high school when Wynne ran the province, and they were in elementary school when she served as education minister.

Now, she is trying to impart the realities of politics: “I want you to understand where I’ve been coming from,” she tells them, before offering a preview of her final speech.

“What I’m going to say to my colleagues in the legislature is that our job is to shine some light. The extent to which we divide, rather than shine that light, is the extent to which we fail….

“Tearing each other down, distorting reality for political gain, serves no one. There may be short term political benefit but no lasting good comes from generating more anger and hostility.”

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 6th, 2022 at 11:55 am and is filed under Governance History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply