When Ontario Liberals made political history last Saturday by electing the province’s first female premier and Canada’s first openly–gay premier, they also bought themselves some crucial time to try and steer the good ship Liberal away from a plunge over the Falls. A trained mediator, premier–designate Kathleen Wynne is going to need to pull a few rabbits out of her hat or else her government could be political history within a year’s time.
In a come–from–behind victory, Wynne won 1,150 votes to her chief rival Sandra Pupatello’s 866 on the third ballot. But it wouldn’t have happened without the support of fellow leadership candidates Eric Hoskins, who dramatically crossed the floor to Wynne’s camp after first ballot results placed him in sixth place, Charles Sousa, who placed fifth on the first ballot and crossed over to Wynne after placing fourth on the second ballot, and Gerard Kennedy, who walked over separately after placing third on the first and second ballots. Pupatello, the former Windsor–West MPP who spent a year on Bay Street before entering the race after outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his resignation in October, had just a razor–thin edge over Wynne on the first ballot, but saw it widen on the second after fourth–place finisher, Mississauga–Erindale MPP Harindar Takhar, decided to throw his support behind his former seatmate after first ballot results.
But it took a bit of maneuvering behind the scenes to reach the end result. Hoskins, according to Pupatello’s camp, was supposed to throw his support behind her after his speech and before first ballot results were known. Pupatello had a secret dinner at Hoskins’ Annex–area home in Toronto last Tuesday. She apparently arrived with a Dufflet chocolate and hazelnut sponge cake iced in hazelnut butter cream with a dark chocolate ganache glaze and spent an hour with Hoskins and his wife, Samantha Nutt. According to a report in the Toronto Star, Pupatello’s campaign claims to have redirected at least $20,000 in promised donations to the Liberal party to Hoskins’ name prior to the convention to help pay for his delegates’ fees. Hoskins’ officials deny this. (As they should because this account very much sounds like Pupatello was buying his support.) When Hoskins delayed his decision to throw his support behind Pupatello, it gave Wynne’s campaign co–chair, Health Minister Deb Matthews, and former Premier David Peterson—who is also Matthews’ brother–in–law—time to convince Hoskins to cross to Wynne’s camp. For Hoskins’ part, he told reporters, “No, I made no deal and no agreement with either.” Either way, he’s likely in for a higher cabinet post under Wynne than he had under McGuinty. He was minister of children and youth prior to entering the leadership race.
Sousa, who’s been crowned the queen–maker, met with his advisors and Kennedy and Hoskins’ advisors along with Wynne’s campaign manager Tom Allison in a Maple Leaf Gardens men’s room underneath the hockey arena seats before the candidates’ speeches Saturday morning. The meeting and subsequent outreach to Wynne were apparently brokered by former Liberal cabinet minister Joe Cordiano, a Kennedy supporter, who is also close to Allison and friendly with Sousa. But they didn’t make any deals. “Kathleen and I complement one another,” Sousa explained to reporters Sunday. “It’s important for us to have a party and a government that…is balanced in its approach.” The initial plan was for them to take their support to Wynne after the first ballot and end the convention early. But Sousa decided to see how he’d do on the second ballot. Sousa and Kennedy had planned to walk over to Wynne’s camp with their fists clenched together in a victory march, but that unraveled after Kennedy, the former Parkdale–High Park MPP and MP, decided to huddle with his backers. Sousa told reporters, “I was hoping he would come with me so we could do it together, but he opted to have a discussion still. So I thought: ‘I’m on my way’.” The presence of his friend, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, in Wynne’s camp helped make his decision.
A former Royal Bank of Canada executive who entered provincial politics in 2007, one would have expected him to throw his support behind Pupatello, who shares his centrist ideology, but her lack of a seat and insistence on prolonging prorogation so she could win a by–election swayed him away. “Sandra’s great, she’d be a great leader, but there was the drawback that she wasn’t in the House, there was a drawback that we’d have to go for a by–election and there was a drawback that we’d still be talking politics and I want to be talking about governing.”
Although Pupatello had the support of almost half the Liberal caucus (she had 25 MPPs behind her including Finance Minister Dwight Duncan and Education Minister Laurel Broten), it’s hard to say how much support she lost because of her insistence on waiting until she had a seat before recalling the legislature. Lt.–Gov. David Onley told the Star he heard from a lot of Ontarians who were angry McGuinty had prorogued the legislature and said the reaction to Pupatello’s announcement was strongly negative. “I noted with interest that there was an immediate (public) response,” the lieutenant–governor stated pointedly. Luckily for him and Ontarians angry at the prospect of delaying the recalling of the legislature even longer, Pupatello’s fellow leadership candidates thwarted that.
“I gave it my all. Right now my feet want to stop. I tell you I couldn’t have worked harder, so I feel good…there wasn’t one more thing I could have done,” Pupatello told reporters afterwards. But she told the Star she’s unsure whether she’ll still run for a seat in the legislature, although Wynne’s advisors are lobbying her to woo Pupatello back and make her a senior minister because she’s a strong performer. Pupatello’s attack–dog, take–no–prisoners style made her a strong opposition MPP and a reliable minister in government but would have made for a divisive leader in a minority government situation. By choosing Wynne over Pupatello, Liberals have avoided an almost certain general election within weeks of the legislature being recalled.
In her speech to convention delegates, Pupatello boasted she’d bring Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath “to their knees” even though all public opinion polls indicate otherwise. Even with her as leader, a Forum Research poll released just prior to the convention had Horwath’s NDP at 32, Hudak’s Conservatives statistically tied at 30 and a Pupatello–led Liberal party at just over 20 percent. The results weren’t much different with Wynne at the helm, but the difference is that Wynne’s conciliatory style will buy the government a few months in which they can try and change the channel from the scandals McGuinty left them with—including the politically motivated decision to move two gas plants just before the last election which will be the subject of an auditor general’s report in the spring, the scandal around ORNGE, the air ambulance service where the government allowed a Crown agency to spend public dollars with little regard for taxpayers and perhaps legality. There’s also the battle with teachers, who made their presence felt outside the convention hall.
Wynne has vowed to reach out to Hudak and Horwath to try and find “common ground” but already the two opposition leaders have laid out their demands. Hudak wants an immediate plan to reduce spending further while Horwath wants a public inquiry called into the scrapping of the gas plants with an interim report in three months and a final report in six months. Horwath said this would “prevent the legislature from being tied up in knots again.” Considering the Conservatives are likely to restart their call to hold Energy Minister Chris Bentley in contempt of the legislature that McGuinty avoided with prorogation, it might be a good strategy for Wynne to pursue. It not only circumvents a repeat of a call to hold Bentley in contempt but, if handled correctly, help Wynne to move on from the problem. She might want to negotiate on the timelines for reporting Horwath wants because they’re designed to be politically damaging to the Liberals in time for a fall or spring election campaign. Wynne will be sitting down with Hudak and Horwath separately this week.
But before she can recall the legislature Feb. 19, she has to piece together a cabinet. A senior Liberal close to Wynne promises, “It will be a very different cabinet.” A Pupatello supporter predicts, “Laurel Broten is going to be a sacrificial lamb for the teachers. She could be in for a significant demotion.” Considering Broten’s handling of that issue, she could be out of cabinet altogether. No doubt some current cabinet ministers are “going to be nervous”, as the senior Liberal said. Many ministers will be moved or, in the case of those who’ve announced they won’t be running again, dumped altogether to make way for new blood.
And while some no doubt have cause to worry, they should be thankful they’ve chosen a leader who can buy them a little more time in government. The alternative, with Pupatello, would have been third–party status and many of them unemployed. Better a demoted MPP than a former MPP. V