Walkom: Wynne’s deathbed repentance

At Queen’s Park, the smell of desperation is in the air.

Premier Kathleen Wynne is putting on a game front, as she proposes billions in new social spending.

But it all has the feeling of deathbed repentance. If the polls are even remotely reliable, Ontarians have already made up their minds about the provincial Liberal government.

They want it gone.

At one level, Wynne’s unpopularity is a mystery. In person, she’s agreeable. Her Liberal government has pursued the kinds of policies that so-called progressive voters say they like.

She has hiked the minimum wage to $14 an hour and made it easier for those with modest family incomes to get a post-secondary education.

She even made it easier for unions to organize some low-wage workers.

She instituted a pharmacare program for all Ontarians under 25 and is now hinting at bringing in a denticare scheme.

Her decision to combat climate change by joining a Quebec-California cap-and-trade system has received some criticism. But arguably it was better than doing nothing.

Still, there seems to be a feeling among many of those who voted for Wynne’s Liberals in 2014 that she’s been a disappointment.

In part, that’s because she didn’t deliver. The deceleration of health spending that characterized the governments of Bob Rae, Mike Harris and Dalton McGuinty continued as Wynne – like her predecessors – tried to get costs under control in an effort to balance the budget.

But in part, it was because she appeared unreliable and, like McGuinty before her, willing to trade principle for political advantage.

Her government’s ill-considered support for the proposed white elephant known as the Scarborough subway was one example. But probably the biggest political mistake she made was to privatize Hydro One.

The Hydro One sale rankled for two reasons. First, it came from nowhere. Wynne had not campaigned on privatizing the provincially owned electricity transmission monopoly. Indeed, her position seemed – if anything – to be the reverse.

Second, the irrationality of a decision that promises to ultimately cost the treasury more than it brings in seemed to typify the Liberals’ casual approach to government.

Wynne is working hard to overcome her disadvantages before the June 7 election. Her strategy is a familiar one – presenting the election as a binary choice between her Liberals, however imperfect, and the reactionary Conservatives of Doug Ford.

To that end, she is promising to spend more on social programs, including mental health and home care.

In an effort to spike the guns of Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats, she is also reprising a 2007 Liberal election promise – never acted upon – to establish a public denticare program.

And she is hoping to entice seniors by eliminating all co-payments and deductibles from the Ontario Drug Benefit program, which currently provides pharmaceuticals to those 65 and over.

Like Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals, she has abandoned plans to balance the provincial budget, calculating – perhaps correctly – that most voters no longer care about such things.

Hers is a robust centre-left agenda that theoretically should give the Liberals a real shot at re-election. And perhaps it will, particularly if her Tory and NDP rivals repeat history by running disastrous campaigns.

But that isn’t the mood I’m picking up now. The mood I’m picking up now says that people don’t trust her and that it’s time for her to go.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.

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