Pop­ulist ver­sus the wonk in a tale of two po­lar op­po­site premiers

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Martin Regg Cohn

Two Lib­eral gov­ern­ments, in On­tario and B.C., have held power vir­tu­ally since the turn of the mil­len­nium.

Two fe­male premiers, in each of these prov­inces, were once seen as change agents, but now risk ap­pear­ing like more of the same.

The prov­inces — and premiers — of On­tario and Bri­tish Columbia couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. But their po­lit­i­cal time­lines — and per­sonal storylines — bear un­canny re­sem­blances as the change train gath­ers steam. B.C.’s cam­paign kicked off this week, and On­tario’s pre-elec­tion jock­ey­ing is al­ready un­der­way (a pro­vin­cial vote looms next year). What hap­pens out west will be closely watched in­side Queen’s Park.

It is a tale of two premiers who are po­lar op­po­sites in style and sub­stance:

B.C.’s Christy Clark cam­paigns from right of cen­tre, strad­dling a de facto Lib­eral-Tory coali­tion united against a per­ceived so­cial­ist peril. Wynne typ­i­cally cam­paigns from left of cen­tre, and would not be out of place helm­ing B.C.’s New Democrats. Clark tries to talk her way out of po­lit­i­cal trou­bles, com­pound­ing them by stonewalling (no­tably on cam­paign fi­nance re­form, where her prov­ince still de­fends the in­de­fen­si­ble). Wynne tends to dive into the weeds, at the risk of chok­ing off her roots as a re­tail politi­cian (she grap­pled, be­lat­edly, with new elec­tion con­tri­bu­tion re­forms at some cost to her party).

Put an­other way: Clark is a pop­ulist, while Wynne is a pol­icy wonk.

Both are fe­ro­ciously com­pet­i­tive cam­paign­ers. Each has de­fied the doubters through­out their ca­reers, cul­mi­nat­ing in their last cam­paigns.

Clark is the sin­gle mother who fell out with her pre­de­ces­sor and made a dra­matic come­back to win the party lead­er­ship, fol­lowed by a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment tri­umph that poll­sters deemed im­pos­si­ble. Wynne is the erst­while pro­tester who per­suaded the gov­ern­ing party to over­come its doubts about win­ning with a les­bian grand­mother, then re­gained the ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment that her pre­de­ces­sor had given up. Both their prov­inces have been lead­ing the coun­try in eco­nomic growth and em­ploy­ment. Yet they have been tum­bling in the polls as vot­ers con­sider chang­ing the mix.

That’s where the nar­ra­tives take a dif­fer­ent turn. Clark is be­hind but still com­pet­i­tive, whereas Wynne is down in the dumps and won­der­ing if she has reached the point of no re­turn.

Em­bat­tled on the eve of the 2013 elec­tion, Clark stared down her own cau­cus by dar­ing the doubters to out them­selves if they wanted to oust her. They stayed silent.

Be­lea­guered ahead of the 2018 cam­paign, Wynne took the op­po­site ap­proach. She made a tear­ful ap­peal to MPPs for help and ad­vice, and has so far avoided any deep fis­sures in cau­cus — heal­ing di­vi­sions by heed­ing dis­senters.

Clark has been able to cast her­self as the in­car­na­tion of job cre­ation, by virtue of don­ning a hard hat in the last cam­paign. Wynne has so far been un­able to wear the man­tle of pru­dent eco­nomic stew­ard, de­spite On­tario fi­nally balanc­ing its bud­get in the com­ing fis­cal year, and push­ing down un­em­ploy­ment with mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing.

De­spite the pub­lic an­tipa­thy to Wynne, man­i­fested in polls and ex­pressed on­line, she has yet to be vil­i­fied in per­son when on the road meet­ing vot­ers. Like Clark in 2013, she has the ad­van­tage of be­ing the best on of­fer in her cau­cus, there be­ing no ob­vi­ous suc­ces­sor. Her bat­tle plan is to bulk up her com­ing spring bud­get with sub­stan­tive poli­cies to deal with ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing and the work­place, af­ter hav­ing low­ered the tem­per­a­ture on ris­ing hy­dro rates.

It will be in­struc­tive to see how the B.C. cam­paign un­folds, and what lessons On­tario Lib­er­als learn from it (not least the pos­si­bil­ity of an NDP re­vival at long last).

Clark has a track record of up­set­ting as­sump­tions and dis­prov­ing pre­dic­tions. Wynne can only won­der why her coun­ter­part’s num­bers are so much bet­ter, given they are both bur­dened by ex­cess bag­gage.

As a for­mer open line ra­dio host, Clark is a su­pe­rior com­mu­ni­ca­tor. She also knows how to play the pop­ulist card, which may be the best way for a politi­cian to re­sist the winds of change.

Wynne hopes to win back vot­ers by demon­strat­ing she is a premier hefty on pol­icy, em­pa­thy and af­ford­abil­ity. But for bet­ter or for worse, the politi­cian who gets too far down in the weeds risks be­com­ing tum­ble­weed in a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment more tur­bu­lent than ever. Martin Regg Cohn’s po­lit­i­cal col­umn ap­pears Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

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