It’s foolish to count Kathleen Wynne out

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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170424.

The embattled Ontario premier believes she is doing the best for the people of the province and so does her team. They think they can win and she isn’t going away, regardless of poor poll results.

Kathleen Wynne is not going anywhere.

And that’s for one very good reason — the premier truly believes she has a shot at victory.

In recent months, speculation about her possible departure as Ontario premier has increased. Yet, as the provincial election looms next year, Wynne has repeatedly insisted she is here to stay.

This insistence comes in spite of increasing concern among Liberals that her unpopularity is hurting the party. That anxiety is not entirely misplaced.

A recent Forum Research poll had the Ontario Liberals in third place, expected to receive about 19 per cent of the provincial vote. This was nearly 24 points behind the Progressive Conservatives and 10 points behind the NDP.

With numbers like this, a Liberal victory looks far out of reach.

However, no one should count Wynne out. She is a strong campaigner and an effective communicator. She is capable and incredibly hard-working. The biggest mistake the Progressive Conservatives can make is to forget about Wynne’s potential as a candidate.

The Premier has begun to lay out her game plan for victory. She will pursue an aggressive and progressive policy agenda in a bid to capture enough progressive centrist and left-leaning votes to defeat both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP. Her initiatives will move government to the left — far left.

So what is her path to victory?

First, the premier has announced measures to try to temper skyrocketing home prices, a move that will resonate with many voters and help secure support on the left.

Second, expect the premier to announce that the minimum wage will increase to $15 an hour by 2018.

Third, she will announce a guaranteed annual income program for low-wage workers and welfare recipients. This will win her back some support among middle-class workers who feel this government has largely ignored their concerns about jobs and the economy.

And fourth, next winter, Wynne is banking on Ontarians being happy to see that their hydro bills have decreased by 25 per cent from the previous winter.

The Premier has a few other things going for her.

Wynne has Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in her corner, and he has proven to be an effective resource for Liberals in provincial elections across the country. The Liberal brand remains very strong in Ontario.

With that said, do I think Wynne can win? Only a fool could be goaded into answering that question.

But do I think she believes she can win? Do I think her team believes they can win with her? One-hundred per cent.

There is a comparable example in recent Canadian political history — none other than Wynne’s nemesis, former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Both defied the odds to win majority governments (Harper in 2011 and Wynne in 2012), and both, despite daunting polls, decided they were the best people to lead their parties one last time.

The premier and her supporters staunchly believe that the work her party is doing is for the good of the province and the people of Ontario. Harper’s supporters also had faith that the work he was doing was critical for the nation. Among supporters, Wynne has thus far been given as wide a berth as Harper had in the run-up to his failed re-election.

But what about those terrible polls?

Wynne will almost certainly have a better 2017-2018 than 2016-2017, but the hurdle she needs to overcome may be insurmountable.

One thing, though: political polls have lately not been especially accurate indicators of election outcomes, as we saw south of the border in November.

Perhaps Wynne believes Ontario voters simply have a case of ‘Liberal fatigue’— the party has been the government in Ontario since 2003 — that they will get over at election time.

What’s more, while Ontarians may not like the current direction of the province, the other parties haven’t offered anything else yet.

Hers is not an easy road to victory, and Wynne, experienced political leader that she is, undoubtedly knows this.

But, as long as she continues to believe she is doing the right thing for Ontario, and as long as she is doing it from behind the premier’s desk, it is not surprising that she has not stepped aside. No one should count on her doing so.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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