How Kathleen Wynne ran out of energy with Ontario voters

From the gas plant scandal to soaring hydro bills, Kathleen Wynne’s tenure as premier was largely defined by energy. On election night, Ontarians emphatically pulled the plug.

Wynne’s Liberals were dramatically cast aside by voters on Thursday night, falling to a distant third place and losing official party status after 15 years in power.

Shortly after Doug Ford’s beaming victory speech, Wynne tearfully announced that she was stepping down as party Leader, saying it was time to “pass the torch” to the next generation after her party’s dismal performance at the polls.

It was an ignominious fall from grace for Wynne, a pioneering politician who became the first female and openly gay premier when she was sworn in on February 11, 2013.

McGuinty’s shadow

The October 2012 resignation of Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty may have cleared the path for Wynne to become premier, but it was also a path littered with her predecessor’s past controversies.

McGuinty stepped down amid outcries from the Opposition over several scandals at Queen’s Park. Union activists and teachers were furious over having contracts imposed on them, the Ornge air ambulance spending scandal was making headlines, and the costly 2011 cancellations of two GTA power plants would prove to be a stubborn thorn in the party’s side for years to come.

Despite those significant obstacles, Wynne took on her new role as premier with great optimism.

“We are going to be very clear with the people of Ontario that we understand where there were missteps and where we need to go forward,” she said at the time.

But the past would prove difficult to erase, and the gas plant scandal that the auditor general determined cost taxpayers $1.1 billion continued to haunt her.

Under searing questioning Wynne apologized for the scandal on behalf of the party, but maintained that she had nothing to do with the cancellations, or the subsequent deletion of emails that sparked an OPP probe.

That didn’t stop PC Leader Tim Hudak from trying to implicate her leading up the 2014 election.

“This is more Kathleen Wynne’s scandal than [former premier] Dalton McGuinty’s now,” Hudak said. “She oversaw and possibly ordered the criminal destruction of documents to cover up the gas plant scandal.”

Wynne steadfastly maintained her innocence.

“These allegations and accusations are false and utterly unsupported, and you ought to know it,” Wynne wrote in an open letter to Hudak.

Wynne ended up launching a $2 million lawsuit against Hudak, and MPP Lisa MacLeod, for libel.

She would later drop the suit.

Despite the stench of scandal that had enveloped the Liberal party, Ontarians were still willing to give Wynne a chance, and on June 12, 2014, the Liberals went from a minority to majority government, with Wynne defeating the NDP’s Andrea Horwath and her rival Hudak, who foolishly vowed to eliminate 100,000 public service jobs if elected.

Hydro Jolt

McGuinty’s former chief of staff, David Livingstone, was ultimately found guilty on two criminal charges related to the destruction of documents in the gas plants case and sentenced to four months in prison. Neither McGuinty nor Wynne were implicated in the criminal probe.

It provided a sense of closure to an ugly stretch for the Ontario Liberal party.

But it wasn’t the end of Wynne’s struggle to earn the trust of voters.

While the gas plant scandal was largely an inherited one, she couldn’t pass the buck when it came to surging hydro bills.

Whether left, right, or somewhere in between, Ontarians of all political leanings had one thing in common under the Wynne government — their hydro bills went up.

A Fraser Institute study titled Evaluating Electricity Price Growth in Ontario found that hydro prices in the province were rising at rates that far outpaced other provinces. Between 2015 and 2016 they spiked by 15 per cent — more than two-and-a-half times the national average.

“The problem of skyrocketing electricity prices and high bills is a made-in-Ontario problem directly tied to the provincial government’s policy choices,” the report stated. “It is time for the Ontario government to have a hard look at how their policy choices are affecting peoples’ lives.”

Adding fuel to the collective ire was the Wynne government’s decision to partially privatize Hydro One to raise funds for transit and infrastructure.

It proved to be wildly unpopular with voters.

“It was my mistake”

Facing mounting anger and province-wide frustration, a contrite Wynne addressed the issue of surging hydro bills in November 2016.

It was a rare admission of culpability from a politician, but it did little to sway the electorate back in her favour.

“People have told me that they’ve had to choose between paying the electricity bill and buying food or paying rent,” Wynne said.

“That is unacceptable to me. It is unacceptable that people in Ontario are facing that choice. Our government made a mistake. It was my mistake.”

She also vowed to find savings for Ontarians beyond the plan to cut the eight per cent HST from hydro bills.

Plummeting popularity

A March 2017 Angus Reid poll saw Wynne’s approval rating dip to a disastrous 12 per cent. It cited hydro privatization as one of the main factors affecting her popularity.

According to the poll more than eight in 10 Ontarians said they were opposed to the sale of Hydro One, with 76 per cent saying they expected the decision would lead to even higher hydro rates in the future.

According to the pollster, Wynne was now the least popular premier in the entire country.

During the 2018 campaign trail, Wynne tried her best to highlight her many accomplishments.

“We’ve made such progress over the last five years,” she said during a campaign stop in Toronto. “We have an economy that’s thriving, we have low unemployment rates, record lows.”

She also vowed to forge on despite several polls that showed her in a distant third place behind the PCs and NDP.

“Am I going to give up? Absolutely not,” she said. “This is way too important that we continue to talk at the doors across this province about what we have done and what we can do going forward.”

But there would be no going forward for Wynne and she conceded defeat less than a week before election night, urging Ontarians to vote Liberal to prevent an NDP or PC majority.

“After Thursday, I will no longer be Ontario’s Premier. And I’m okay with that,” an emotional Wynne said.

The damage was done, and her own words back in 2016 seemed to highlight the mortal political sin that would prove unforgivable to voters thirsting for change.

“Standing before you today, I take responsibility as leader for not paying close enough attention to some of the daily stresses in Ontarians’ lives.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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