, 03.19.2018 07:24 AM

Column: will Wynne’s story have a sad ending?

There are all kinds of clichés about how and why governments lose.

That they defeat themselves. That they die by degrees. That they become the very thing they had ‎once pledged to always oppose.

Mostly, though, governments forget the plot. All of governing – all of the politics – is telling a story, every single day.

Some folks call that a “narrative,” and assert that you need a narrative to win. And, it’s true: having a compelling, easily-understood story is pretty important.

People are busy. They’ve got a lot of stuff going on. ‎Taking a kid to early-morning hockey practice, getting an aging parent to the clinic, trying to get to work on time, catching up on sleep.

So, political parties need to get their attention. You don’t do that by throwing statistics at voters. You do that by having a narrative, a story. Facts tell, stories sell.

Barack Obama had one: “Yes we can.” Dalton McGuinty in 2003, too: “Choose change.” Justin Trudeau: “Hope and hard work.” Those were good ones. They worked, big time.

Kathleen Wynne, now less than 60 days from an election many expect ‎her to lose, has no story to tell. There’s no narrative, there. No bright red thread that runs through the stuff that she says and does.

She has briefly prorogued ‎the Legislature so that she can have a Throne Speech, sure. But Joe and Jane Frontporch don’t care about Throne Speeches. They don’t pay attention to those. The media and political people do, but that’s it.  Normal people don’t.

So, the last opportunity‎ Wynne has to tell her story – any story – is in the budget that is being unveiled at the end of this month. We don’t know much about what’s in it, but we do know one thing: Charles Sousa lost the argument.

Wynne’s Finance Minister was rightly proud of having balanced the budget last year. It was a big deal. But then he was told – instructed, really – to go back into deficit. So he will: $8 billion worth of red ink. That’s a lot.

When I heard that, I was shocked, and I don’t get shocked by politicians very much any more. That figure strongly suggests we are about to witness the most expensive Hail Mary pass in Canadian political history.

I don’t think it’s going to work. Not because Kathleen Wynne isn’t an amazing communicator and a wily campaigner. Not because she doesn’t know how to beat Conservatives. She does, she does.

I don’t think it’s going to work because it bears a strong resemblance to a previous political failure: the orgy of spending promises that took place in the dying days  ‎of Paul Martin’s regime in 2005.

Remember that? It possessed all the dignity of that helicopter lifting off that rooftop just prior to the fall of Saigon. It felt as desperate as a death row at midnight in the deepest South.

Martin promised to amend the Constitution in the middle of a leader’s debate: he actually did that. He proclaimed a stirring new vision for indigenous people without allocating a plug nickel to pay for any of it.

He promised tax cuts, lots of them. He started spending money, lots of it. “Mr. Martin, known for his careful stewardship of Canada’s public finances under Mr. Chretien,” The Economist wrote disapprovingly at the time, “has gone on a bit of a spending spree in the run-up to what he knew would be an early election.

The magazine continued: “The government promised $39 billion in new tax cuts and spending over the next five years. Mr. Harper accused of Mr. Martin ‎of promising over a billion dollars a day in order to hold onto power.”

In yesterday walks tomorrow, goes the saying. Down here in Toronto in 2018, it’s feeling like Ottawa in 2005 all over again. You know: spend like a proverbial drunken sailor, throw every single policy Vietnam at the wall, just to see if something sticks.

But, you know: if it didn’t work in 2005, it is unlikely to work in 2018.

So why is Kathleen Wynne making a losing narrative her only narrative? Good question. Lots of Liberals are asking the same question. “She’s smart,” they say. “Why the desperation?”

The answer may be found not in Wynne. More likely, Ontario Liberals say, the authors of the Hail Mary Pass Budget are found with those around Wynne, and not Wynne herself.

And guess what? Surprise, surprise: the ones who Kathleen Wynne are relying upon for strategic advice are the very same men who advised Paul Martin in his bunker back in 2005, as the blue horde was closing in. Same guys.

Same strategy, too. It has three parts. One, bet the house on your opponent doing some career-ending stupidity. Two, promise everything to everyone. And, three, spend like money is water. ‎ Go crazy.

Now, full disclosure: this writer doesn’t much like those Paul Martin guys around Kathleen Wynne. They hounded my friend Jean Chretien for years, and – as a result – they wrecked the Liberal Party of Canada for a decade‎.

They look like they’re getting ready to do the same thing to the Ontario Liberal Party – a political party about which I’m rather nostalgic. I ran the aforementioned McGuinty guy’s three war rooms, and I want to keep the OLP off the endangered species list, you know?

But the polls. The polls – Doug Ford, um, notwithstanding – have been showing the Ontario Liberal Party facing a possible third-place finish. Even against Doug Ford.

Doug. Ford.

The solution to that isn’t to ape Paul Martin’s losing narrative. The solution isn’t to go nuts with other people’s money.  The solution is to craft a narrative that makes sense. One that captivates peoples’ hearts and minds.

They don’t have one. They just don’t. And they’re out of time.

That, pretty much, is why the Ontario Liberal government is likelier to lose than to win.

They don’t have a story to tell anymore.

 

28 Comments

  1. Matt from Ottawa says:

    I think aside from all the other issues with an old tired government is with hydro. Despite the fact that we are going to pay more down the road, the one silver lining (if that) to the Hydro sell off was that the books would be balanced etc etc. Now with them going back into deficit it becomes blatantly obvious that they sold off Hydro One for strictly political purposes and nothing else. TBH, as much as I want them to lose, I dont envy any party that has to clean up Wynne & Co’s mess. As much as I despise them, I kinda want them to win a minority so that their hands are tied and they have to face the problems they have created in Ontario

  2. Ron Benn says:

    I am continually intrigued by, but no longer surprised at, how many leaders stay on well after their best before date.

    The federal Conservatives had to have known that Stephen Harper was unelectable in 2015, as it was clear that the country was looking for a change in leadership, and sure enough, they went down to defeat.

    The Ontario Liberals have to know that Kathleen Wynne is unelectable. If they don’t realize that, then they are at best incompetent. A rational scenario would have been Kathleen Wynne announcing her retirement in December, with a leadership convention set for March or April. That way the Ontario Liberals could have entered the June election with two things they don’t have now. The first is a shiny new leader who could represent the change, at least nominally, that so many residents of Ontario appear to want. The second is that the leadership campaign would be worth millions of dollars of free advertising, right before the election campaign.

    To be generous to the Liberal backroom cabal, perhaps they considered this alternative, and concluded that no one who was even remotely electable wanted the job – sort of along the lines of how Kim Campbell was the only fool willing to succeed Brian Mulroney back in the early 1990’s.

    • Luke says:

      Stephen Harper seemed resigned to defeat some time before Election Day. I wonder at what point did he figure it was over.

      • Matt says:

        I was told the CPC’s internal pollins started showing a Liberal majority several weeks befor the public polls did.

        Even a couple weeks before the Liberals internal polls did.

    • Pedant says:

      I believe the Liberals always knew their chance of winning a 5th term was slim to none, regardless of leader. Wynne knows it too. She is taking the hit for the party so that the new leader, whoever he or she will be, can start fresh after the election.

      Re: Kim Campbell. She was well ahead in the polls before the 1993 campaign began. For reasons we all remember or read about (if too young to remember), the PC campaign crashed and burned, but it would be wrong to say it was doomed from the beginning. Also, Campbell wasn’t the only leadership contender. She beat out Jean Charest for the job, who almost certainly would have delivered a respectable result in 1993 (though would have probably still lost) had he been leader.

      • Ron Benn says:

        Pedant, my recollection of the federal PC leadership campaign was that Jean Charest had to be strong armed into running, so that there would at least be the illusion of someone actually wanting the job. As for Kim Campbell’s decision to run, I suspect her motivation was to be the first female PM of Canada.

  3. Mervyn Norton says:

    Very true about good storytelling being the essense of political success. Ignoring all the Justin haters, one could legitimately ask whether the “middleclass” storytelling of the federal Liberals also is becoming stale, if not yet unravelling, on how to link climate change efforts, economic innovation, and government performance. Legal cannabis and medically assisted suicide are not enough to weave a winning election story.

  4. James Smith says:

    As a Sophomoric Partizan™ I want the grits to win, & I put both my money AND my time where my keyboard is. But I’m too old a bunny to sit through another 2 decades of humpty dumpty falling & attempts to put it back together again. While I supported another woman for leader I have grown to like Ms Wynn, but I don’t get the lack of, as you put it a narrative. In one week Mr F has given Grits at least 3 chances (Choice, Dope & Education) to frame the narrative & re-inforce what people see as Mr F’s failings. Weak tea was the reply. Ms Wynn needs to loosen the chains & encourage pity retorts. BTW, WTF is the Grit “War Room” at this point.

  5. James Smith says:

    Just a note about your history comment. For me it evokes the spring & summer of 1990. As a Copps delegate in Calgary, I spoke to every Ontario MPP I could find to plead with them that a rumoured election call would be a disaster. (I had spoken to a lot of people on the doors attempting to get memberships and heard this criticism loud & clear). One MPP told me to stop wasting my time as Premier Peterson had made up his mind. The result was 13 lost years and 15 years to try & fix the nonsense of both extremist governments.

  6. Matt says:

    Campaign Research released a poll yesterday with numbers that should be of great concern for the Liberals, if accurate.

    Locked in votes – Nothing will change your mind:

    Will vote for, no matter what
    OPC – 30%
    LIBS – 12%
    NDP – 13%

    Won’t vote for, no matter what:
    OPC – 49%
    LIBS – 65%
    NDP – 58%

  7. Doris says:

    Warren you have been beating this drum for a while and I believe you only because I am convinced that Wynne was done a few months ago and you know that once the tinge of death is around you cannot lose it.

    But what is your advice after all you cannot bang on about how she can lose then say “I told you so” without some advice that obviously will fall on deaf ears.

      • Sjs says:

        Warren, as usual, you’re absolutely right re the importance of having a story.
        With that in mind, I guess you’re being consistent. This obviously will be horrible for your biz, unless this is you re-positioning as a moderate. In a partisan biz, you don’t need to staff for what’s happened but, for what’s on the horizon. You need people to pay you for access.

  8. billg says:

    I still don’t see the electorate in the mood to face the obvious issue that the province of Ontario cannot continue down its current fiscal path. Will someone from some party state the obvious please? We either need more taxes from every person and every business, or, we need to cut back on spending.
    And the reason I think the electorate isn’t in the mood to face the obvious is that if Doug Ford stood up today and said we need to cut spending he’d lose, and, Kathleen Wynne cant win promising to spend more.
    I’d just like the voters to decide, I’d like Doug Ford to clarify his position on spending cuts, Ms. Wynne clarified where she stands. The rest should be up to us.

    • Ron Benn says:

      billg, what you are asking for is what Premier Wynne once said was required, notably an “adult conversation”. To cut to the chase, we need an “adult conversation” to take place, one that covers at least in part the sustainability of the current government spending model, but no one running for (re)election is prepared to lead that conversation.

      We, the residents of Ontario, and in particular the subset that has the right to vote, are left to read into the constant deluge of comments attributed to a candidate to determine what they mean when the say something, or fail to say something. We are left with the need to filter the deluge of information and misinformation to figure out what a party actually plans on doing if elected.

      Oh, but for a little honesty and clarity from those who propose to lead. Too much to ask for? Sadly, yes.

    • doconnor says:

      Provincial election ballot issue: Would you continue to support Donald Trump if he engaged in a nuclear first strike on North Korea.

    • Daryl Gordon says:

      Quiet support for Trump policies allows other politicians to rationally discuss climate change and immigration without being branded deniers or racists. No such political cover existed before Trump.

      • Fred from BC says:

        “to rationally discuss climate change and immigration without being branded deniers or racists.”

        People underestimate just how crucial this is to being able to actually solve a problem, rather than just grandstand and virtue-signal about it.

  9. Patricia Morfee says:

    I have been looking at your new website and frankly I don’t think it is a suitable fit for me. There is Matt whoever he is who has an opinion on everything and has inside sources.Since I am a Liberal card carrying member of both Federal and Provincial parties, I have a hard time reading the praise Ford and get rid of the Liberals rhetoric. I guess I am just too old and remember too many former governments and the harm done.

  10. Robert White says:

    The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario is a train wreck of middle aged white guys that want to punish Wynne, and the Liberal voters, for being inclusive rather than angry white xenophobes on the war path against ethnic diversity & gender inclusivity. PC-ers stand for regressive anti-social policy & divisive politics that victimize voters in favour of corporatist penchant for profits over social responsibility to voters.

    The Liberal Party has a vision and a story to tell this electoral round. Wynne is advocating social responsible governance whereas Ford is merely willing to blow with the wind of flatulent corporatists that want Corporate Welfare instead of social responsibility. Furthermore, these same corporatist bootlicking politicians will promise everything & anything to attain the power necessary to line their pockets and feather their respective nests at a cost to social responsibility to the voter.

    Ford’s platform is based on profit whereas Wynne’s platform will be based on socially responsible governance.
    Ford cannot step into office and claim to balance the books so we can assume that deficit spending in Ontario will continue on for many more years due to demographic variables and system needs.

    RW

    • Daryl Gordon says:

      By repeatedly using “inclusive, diverse, socially responsible” etc in nearly every paragraph in a single post, one would expect your moniker to be more like Robert Person of Colour.

  11. Tim Smyth says:

    It is interesting to see different between the Quebec Liberals and the Ontario Liberals. While the Quebec Liberals are down in the polls too you get the sense that Couillard and co. aren’t going down without a fight hence the pre budget announcement that Quebec will start buying back provincial debt for the first time since the 1950s.

    https://globalnews.ca/news/4082794/quebec-provincial-budget-to-be-tabled-on-march-27/

    I don’t know if this will work for the QC Liberals but to Warren’s point they seem to have to decided they have a story to tell and are going to do so. In fact they seem to have already setup a narrative between themselves and Legault’s CAQ in that Legault would rather cut taxes first than pay down debt.

  12. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Tim,

    Cash in your hands is always preferable to cash on government books.

    Even yours truly will be voting CAQ and I’ll be holding my nose when I do it.

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