Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne are going into the leadership convention set off by Dalton McGuinty’s surprise resignation as the apparent favourites – and for good reason. Both have strong track records in government. Each makes a persuasive case that she is the Liberals’ best choice now.
It’s a close call, but on balance we favour Sandra Pupatello. Of all the candidates, she stands out as the one with the energy, personality and message that will give her party the best chance to hold on to power in what promises to be a closely fought contest with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives and Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats. After a year of lurching from one crisis to another, the Liberals badly need to change the channel with a new leader and a new approach. Going with Pupatello would be the most convincing way to do that.
In a meeting with the Star’s editorial board, Pupatello left no doubt what her priority would be as premier: “Jobs and the economy is the number one issue in every part of Ontario.” As minister responsible for trade and economic development from 2006 to 2011, she made her mark selling the province to the world. At the same time, she has made it clear that for Ontario the road to economic success cannot be “a low wage race to the bottom” like that being pushed by the far right.
Pupatello has also demonstrated her commitment to social justice throughout her life, and as minister of community services and education in the McGuinty government. She promises a “frugal government with a social conscience.” That’s the right message for these times of tightened budgets; it’s what voters need to hear after too many reports of wasted money in areas like the ORNGE scandal.
Pupatello brings two other important cards to the table. Her roots in Windsor (where she plans to seek re-election) allow her to counter the unfortunate, but undeniable, anti-Toronto bias in Ontario politics. And she sat out the 2011 election, and so had the good fortune to watch the government’s recent stumbles from the sidelines while adding a stint on Bay Street to her resume. As a result, it will be easier for her to campaign on a message of change when an election eventually comes.
All signs are that her main rival for the top job is Kathleen Wynne, who over a decade as an MPP and minister built an impressive record of accomplishment in three important ministries. As education minister, in particular, she drove improvements in Ontario’s school system that have made it a leader in the English-speaking world. That will be at the top of the McGuinty government’s most enduring accomplishments, and Wynne can claim much of the credit.
The knock against Wynne is that she is not “electable” – code, as she puts it herself, for being “a lesbian from Toronto.” No one knows how that would play out in 2013. But the bigger problem for her, and for other recent ministers in the leadership race, is that she is so closely identified with a government that is discredited in the eyes of many voters. That would make her an easier target for Hudak and Horwath in the next election campaign.
There’s always a chance, of course, that a convention decided by delegates and horse-trading among candidates could take an unexpected twist. Gerard Kennedy, sitting in third place going in, is trying for a comeback after falling short in previous leadership bids at both the provincial and federal levels. He has talent and experience in spades, but can’t seem to shake the perception that he is yesterday’s man.
Harinder Takhar has made a surprisingly strong showing in the race so far, but is dogged by controversy. Charles Sousa and Eric Hoskins, both strong assets for the Liberals, will have to wait for next time.
Whoever wins on Saturday will face an uphill climb to keep the Liberals in power. Any government accumulates heavy baggage after nearly a decade in office, and this one is certainly no exception. Sandra Pupatello is best placed to give the party a new face and energetic new leadership – while keeping it true to the values that make it distinct.