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Wynne hopes to carry battered Liberals to 4th mandate

By: Maria Babbage, The Canadian Press

 | Jun 10, 2014 - 1:43 PM |
TORONTO - Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne may be a bit bruised as she wraps up her maiden election voyage, but whether she'll manage to steer the battered Liberal ship back to port with a fourth mandate on Thursday remains to be seen.

Wynne has reinvented a party that's been in power for over a decade, giving it a fresh face and moving it to the left of the political spectrum, more "austerity light" than her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, said Bryan Evans, politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.

She's chosen to focus on public services that she's deemed to be important to Ontario's social and economic fabric, rather than slaying the province's $12.5-billion deficit.

"I think it's genuine on her part, I'm not sure if that's something that's deeply rooted in the Ontario Liberal Party," Evans said.

"But she has made the remarkable job of being able to keep this minority government alive."

The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have taken some of the wind out of her sails, using the spending scandals she inherited from her predecessor Dalton McGuinty as cannon fodder during the campaign.

There was plenty of ammunition: the cancellation of two gas plants that will cost an estimated $1.1 billion, a criminal probe into the questionable business dealings of the province's Ornge air ambulance service and a decision to bail out the MaRS innovation and research complex in downtown Toronto.

Both the Tories and NDP have accused the Liberals of corruption, with the Tories claiming Wynne may have tried to cover up the deletion of documents about the gas plants for political reasons.

Wynne acknowledged that she's spent a lot of time defending herself and her party during the campaign, but said her plan, which includes a proposed provincial pension plan and billions in infrastructure spending, is about moving the province ahead.

"That's not a defensive stance, that's very much going on a path that takes leadership and responsibility about what we know we need going forward," she said.

"It's not a political tactic, it's not a political strategy. It's making sure that everyone knows what is at risk here."

Wynne, 60, became Ontario's first woman premier and Canada's first openly gay provincial leader when she took office on Feb. 11, 2013. But her position has yet to be ratified by voters.

Born in Toronto, Kathleen O'Day Wynne married Phil Cowperthwaite in 1977 and moved to the Netherlands for a few years before returning to Canada. She has a son and two daughters as well as three grandchildren.

But the marriage didn't last. Wynne came out as a lesbian at age 37 and in 2005 married Jane Rounthwaite, whom she'd first met in university about 30 years prior. The two were inseparable over the marathon campaign across the province.

She was first elected to the legislature in 2003 after serving as a Toronto school trustee and running her own company as a conflict mediation professional.

Wynne said she made the jump to provincial politics because she wanted to defeat a Conservative government that had slashed spending and pushed ahead with controversial changes to public services that sparked widespread labour unrest and sometimes violent demonstrations.

"The reason I feel so passionately about this is because the way I got into politics is because what we had built was being threatened," she said during the campaign.

"I grew up hearing the stories about what government-funded education was and how it grew through those years. So, it is absolutely foundational to my belief on what this province is about is that we have strong schools with teachers and support staff that are supported by a government that believes in public education."

She took on important portfolios under McGuinty, serving as minister of education, aboriginal affairs, municipal affairs and transportation.

Her reputation as a conciliator was part of her appeal during the leadership contest, a skill she's used to mend fences with public school teachers angry over wage-freeze legislation and rural communities upset over decisions to cancel the slots-at-racetracks program and the installation of industrial wind turbines.

She also managed to pass one budget by tailoring it to satisfy the New Democrats, who helped to trigger the election by pulling their support for the Liberals.

Her diplomatic approach has served her in good stead, as it has previous premiers like Bill Davis and David Peterson in the 1970s and '80s, said Evans.

"Government is very much about that," he said.

"In a period of minority government, those skills are incredibly valuable. In fact they're necessary."

But it doesn't help much in a nasty election campaign, where politicians have to give as good as they get.

Wynne has fired back at her rivals, claiming the Tories would plunge Ontario back into a recession with massive cuts, including 100,000 public sector jobs.

She's also employing a time-honoured Liberal tactic to fight the New Democrats, warning voters that casting a ballot for the NDP would help the Tories win.

She also attacked their populist policy, saying they've strayed so far from their core principles, they were no longer the party of the late Jack Layton, Ed Broadbent or Stephen Lewis.

Election campaigns are "a pitched competition between political parties," but they're also a chance to explain what motivates them, Wynne said.

"There are different motives, and I think that it is important as people go to the polls in Ontario, that they have a sense of what motivates the leaders and what motivates their candidates," she said.

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