Will Patrick Brown be Kathleen Wynne's greatest achievement?
When Margaret Thatcher was asked what she regarded as her greatest achievement as Britain’s prime minister, she’s said to have answered: “Tony Blair and New Labour.” By which she meant she had redefined British politics and forced her once-socialist opponents to endorse the essence of the conservatism she stood for.
In a similar way, it’s worth wondering whether Kathleen Wynne’s greatest achievement may turn out to be Patrick Brown.
Wynne’s Liberals and Brown’s Progressive Conservatives will face off next June in a general election. And by any conventional measure the outcome ought to be pre-ordained: the Liberals will have been in power for 15 years by then and victory should be Brown’s for the picking, on his own terms.
Yet it’s not turning out quite that way. The latest opinion polls show the Liberals actually closing the gap with the PCs, despite all the baggage they have accumulated after being in power for such a long time.
More to the point, Brown has made it clear that his Conservatives will be essentially running on Liberal turf. The “People’s Guarantee” election platform they rolled out at the end of November could have been borrowed from the Liberal playbook.
There was no red meat for social conservatives, and no talk about rolling back the Wynne government’s progressive social measures. The headlines from the PC announcement were about help for families with child-care costs, a middle-class tax cut, and a $1.9-billion, 10-year initiative on mental health.
Certainly, the program can (and will) be picked apart by progressives. There’s a major funding gap and the question for Conservatives is always, what will you cut to pay for all that?
But overall, Brown has clearly decided to run down the middle, where Ontario elections are won. After the PCs’ spectacular flame-outs as they campaigned to the right in 2011 and 2014, he has dragged the party back to the middle. The best proof of that are the howls of outrage from ideological conservatives asking what’s the point of a “Conservative” party if it’s going to turn into an echo of the lefty Liberals?
In effect, Brown is paying tribute to the Liberals’ remarkable record of electoral success under Dalton McGuinty and, for the past four years, Kathleen Wynne.
Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in the Liberals’ record. From the e-health fiasco to cancelling gas plants on the eve of an election, the McGuinty and Wynne governments have had their full share of missteps and scandals. And when you’ve won four straight elections, a lot of voters are going to want change simply for the sake of change.
But before the pre-election season gets into high gear, it’s worth reflecting on why the Wynne government still has political life in it and a fighting chance of holding its own next June.
It would have been understandable if the Liberals had drifted for the past year or so, exhausted by years in power and demoralized by polls showing the party and the premier trailing badly.
Instead, the government has put in place a series of ambitious policies designed to counter the corrosive effects of inequality. It’s been out to show that government can work for the majority of the population and step in when the system leaves many behind.
A couple of those policies will kick in on Jan. 1. Most obviously, there will be a substantial increase in the provincial minimum wage, from $11.60 an hour to $14 (with a hike to $15 scheduled for 2019). This will bring the poorest paid workers closer to a living wage.
On the same day, Ontario will extend pharmacare coverage to everyone under 25. It’s a big step toward building a full pharmacare program for everyone – something that should be near the top of every government’s agenda.
Those measures come on top of a raft of other steps brought in by Wynne. There’s a big improvement in public pensions, which started as a plan by Ontario to expand its plan and turned into a national initiative to boost pension payouts by 2025. That’s a major long-term step toward repairing the frayed social safety net.
Ontario also brought in full-day kindergarten and a significant increase in child-care spaces. It introduced free post-secondary tuition for students from lower-income families. It broadened rent control and provided relief on hydro bills. And it started a pilot program on a guaranteed basic income; there are many problems with such an approach but at least it got a public discussion going on what kind of economic guarantees society should offer those who are falling far behind.
The New Democrats, of course, complain the Liberals are stealing their ideas – especially on the minimum wage and pharmacare. That will be hashed out in the coming election campaign, but for ordinary people it’s more important that the policies become reality than which party gets the credit.
If the Ontario PCs followed past practice, they might be expected to challenge all this and promise to return the province to a more conservative path. But if their election platform is to be believed, they won’t do any of that. They won’t cancel the pharmacare or tuition plans and they won’t roll back the $14 minimum wage (though they would phase in the increase to $15 more slowly).
In fact, they even plan to run a deficit in their first year in sharp contrast to the Liberals, who have balanced the provincial books (leaving aside a dissent on that point by Ontario’s auditor-general).
The bottom line is that Patrick Brown has essentially accepted that the progressive course Wynne has charted is what most Ontarians want. They don’t want a turn toward social conservatism or a downsizing of what is already a comparatively lean government.
As it looks now, the election will be fought on which party is best equipped to deliver on that vision. And that may be the biggest legacy of Wynne and the Liberals, regardless of who wins in June.
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