By Richard Forbes.
Featured Image via Frank Gunn.

In a momentous mea culpa, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and other ministers spent last week addressing what they called ‘the elephant in the room’: ‘gee, I know we’ve been avoiding the subject, guys,’ they said with some contrition, ‘but we really do care – honest!’

That elephant being, of course, the rising cost of hydro.

Between 2006 and 2014, hydro rates have risen by 70% for families and small businesses, according to Ontario’s auditor general. The cost of hydro in Ontario has amounted to the perfect political grenade, one that appears singularly placed to bury the Ontario Liberals if they aren’t able to – dare I say it – turn the switch and bring a fresh new light to the subject. To that end, Wynne’s unveiled her plan this month to slash hydro rates by as much as 25% – spreading out the costs of past contracts to future generations.

“Hydro is a necessity,” writes Wynne in her editorial, striking a sympathetic tone. “But for many living outside of large urban centres, high delivery charges were leading to impossible choices between groceries, rent or electricity. That’s not right. With this change, everyone in Ontario is going to be paying roughly the same in delivery charges.”

The expectation on the part of the Wynne Liberals is that this humbling aboutface might resonate with voters. The reality is it hasn’t been paying dividends. In fact, it’s not even the first attempt at an aboutface – Wynne’s throne speech last September where she announced her intentions to cut a portion of the HST from hydro bills, a response to PC leader Patrick Brown’s win in a Scarborough by-election, was met with positively miserable poll numbers for the Wynne Liberals.

Brown’s PCs ended last year with skyrocketing support, leading poll analysts to muse about the possibility of a PC supermajority and the Liberals being relegated to (gulp) third party status. Half of Ontarians believe that the PCs will win the next provincial election and, worse still for the premier, half of respondents also believe Kathleen Wynne will be dumped as leader before then.

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Polling indicates although Patrick Brown is the front-runner,  Ontario voters still don’t necessarily trust or approve of the PC leader (Steve Russell, Toronto Star.)

Truth be told, the decisions that have been made up to this point that have led our province to its current predicament aren’t as unreasonable as some have made them out to be: Ontario was suffering from regular brownouts and blackouts in the mid noughties, so much so that then opposition leader Dalton McGuinty was campaigning on reducing energy consumption and ensuring Ontario’s outdated grid could meet our energy demands. Today’s hydro challenges mark a reversal of that situation: our energy production (30,203 megawatts) now exceeds our province’s daily demand (15,959 megawatts) – a surplus we possess today as a result of massive investments, to the tune of $50 billion, in new power plants and upgrades which the McGuinty government purchased to meet energy demands and oversee the province’s promised transition away coal.

The soaring electricity rates now frustrating Ontario homeowners are a result of the province signing more energy deals then than were ultimately needed – 20-year contracts with private sector companies that were and still are expensive, long-term and ultimately locked in for the foreseeable future. The extent to which the McGuinty government overshot the province’s energy needs also got considerably worse after the Global Economic Meltdown – an unexpected factor – which drove down electricity demand with a recession from which Ontario has been slow to recover.

While she won’t get the credit she expects for it, Wynne is embarking on the only reasonable response to this crisis available to her: spreading out or amortizing debt, shifting and redistributing costs in such a way as to shield the province’s most vulnerable from the costs of past decisions.

The contracts aren’t going to disappear, the province will pay for them – it’s just a question of who will pay for it and when. In comparison, many of the opposition’s various positions – chief among them, scrapping wind farms and reversing the privatization of Hydro One – amount to pure ideological dogma that won’t lower anyone’s bills. Patrick Brown even managed to get himself in hot trouble on conservative talk radio recently for dodging questions regarding his own (nonexistent) plan.

“It’s very satisfying, I’m sure, to recap how awful everything has been and how we’ve gotten to this point,” said Newstalk 1010‘s John Moore, catching Brown off guard, “but…what is your plan? What is the alternative?”

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Wynne announcing her government will stretch the costs of electricity generation contracts to future generations. (Frank Gunn, CP.)

Indeed, we’ve reached a point in this debate where electricity rates have taken on a political dimension of their own, dwarfing the province’s reality: opposition parties are proposing ‘magic’ solutions, misdirecting the public’s anger to decisions on an ideological basis. In this sense, hydro is not an issue Wynne can ‘win’ on – she can show she has a plan and the public can be relied on to snuff out snake oil salesmen eventually (Hudak’s ‘million jobs plan‘ con comes to mind) – but this now seasonal routine of hammering on her own government’s mistakes is like trying to stop the bleeding with lemon juice. It may be the truth but her opposition won’t constrain themselves with that level of debate – not when the public is irate and looking for answers. No, for better or for worse, this is a political fight now and Wynne’s Liberals will need a political solution.

In search of that political solution, some Liberal insiders are reportedly considering a leadership coup, forcing Wynne out for a fresh, err, well, different face; Toronto Star named some possible contenders, including Health Minister Eric Hoskins, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, someone named ‘Mitzie’ and (c’mon, really?) Finance Minister Charles Sousa. (You might as well throw bloody Liz Sandals into the mix.) Forcing a resignation and changing the leadership would be an act of desperation – a last ditch attempt to revive the party’s brand and resurrect its re-election chances. For her part, Wynne said she wasn’t concerned about traitors in her midst, expressing confidence in her team.

And why should Wynne be worried?

Replacing Kathleen Wynne would be foolhardy for the Ontario Liberals: she’s their best chance at victory – if not in the short term, most certainly in the long term. She may very well be the most hated person in Ontario as far as the polls are concerned, but nobody but a complete moron would write Kathleen Wynne off – her last name is all you need to know about the premier; she’s a political cage fighter and if she goes out this next election, she’ll go out scrapping admirably just the way anyone would expect her to.

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PM Pierre Trudeau strikes his famous ‘gunslinger’ pose in 1973. He would face unlikely odds for re-election six years later against Joe Clark.

The daunting re-election fight facing Kathleen Wynne is easy to compare with Pierre Trudeau’s fourth in 1979. Trudeau’s chances were slim going into that election – he was as unpopular in Canada then as Kathleen Wynne is now in Ontario – but like Wynne, Trudeau commanded authority and respect – which led to the brazen (and frankly ridiculous) decision on the part of the Liberal team to run their 1979 campaign centrally around the elephant in the room, warts and all: their leader and his experience. Braving the tough race ahead with the tautological mantra, ‘A leader must be a leader,’ the Trudeau Liberals ran a gunslinging campaign that came tantalizing close to victory against Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives. In a surprising turn of events, Clark’s own government would fall only a few months later, largely as a result of his clumsy leadership.

To defeat Brown’s PCs, Wynne’s Liberals will have to set similar bear-traps for Patrick Brown along the way – exploiting the same weaknesses surrounding Brown that existed with Clark: namely, bad judgement and poor coalition-making. Patrick Brown is running a provincial campaign against ‘incompetence and corruption’ without a specific plan of his own, attempting to forge relations with every corner of the Conservative tent: at this rate, he might be better off not winning this next election; that is, not with the economic situation he will inherit and the contradictory slate of promises he’s made to different factions – the Social Conservative tent will expect him to make changes to the sex-ed curriculum, the Red Tory tent will expect him to fulfill his promise to implement a provincial carbon tax. He, like Clark, will be faced with a decision to follow through on a number of ill-advised electoral promises or risk being accused of flip flopping.

In this respect, the Ontario Liberals have a leader in their corner who is the antithesis of that shilly-shallying and that contrast – backbone to spineless – should be a central focus of their re-election campaign. Wynne very well may lose but it’s easier for political parties to bounce back when they lose an election standing tall and proud of their track record rather than cutting and running in the manner an emergency leadership transition would suggest. Who knows, a year after Patrick Brown’s win, Ontarians might be nostalgic for a day when they actually knew where the premier stood on a given issue…

cartoon

Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

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3 thoughts on “Don’t count Kathleen Wynne out just yet

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