Populist versus the wonk in a tale of two polar opposite premiers
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. email@example.com, Twitter: @reggcohn