It was Kathleen Wynne’s campaign event, but it was also a testament to Stephen Harper’s political skills.
Let us explain. There the Ontario Liberal leader was, on Wednesday: in a Toronto–area classroom, a gaggle of smiling kindergarten kids gathered behind her. She was there to announce something or the other, but it doesn’t really matter what it was. What matters is the following exchange between Wynne and the assembled news media, when she was asked about the governing Liberals’ relationship with the New Democrats.
Said Wynne: “I’m not going to pre-empt the decision of people on June 12. I’m just not going to do that.”
A reporter, sounding amazed, interjected: “You’re NOT ruling out a coalition?”
Wynne responded right away, cheerfully stepping into the yawning chasm that Stephen Harper has carved out of our political culture.
“I’m not ruling out anything,” she said, and you could almost hear the air go out of that classroom. Wynne had twice refused to rule out THAT. She hadn’t said THAT, true, but her meaning was clear. She was ready to consider THAT.
And, THAT, of course, is the word that Stephen Harper, through a lot of hard work and no small amount of dishonesty, has rendered completely radioactive: COALITION. In other places, in other countries, “coalition” is a perfectly sensible way of governing oneself. In Israel, a nation many of us rather admire, they do it all the time. So too in other democracies.
But in Canada, no. Here, Harper has transformed “coalition” into something that is fundamentally anti-democratic. Here, coalitions are akin to revolution; they are anathema. To save his skin, Harper has successfully persuaded many people that coalitions are illegitimate – despite having agitated for one in 2004, when he was in Opposition. Once in power, it became lots of dark warnings about “a coalition of Liberals, separatists and socialists.” That sort of thing. It worked.
Kathleen Wynne was right to refuse to rule out a coalition with the NDP, following Ontario’s election June 12 conclusion. But, in politics, right is rarely the same thing as smart. In other words, she made a big mistake, one Ontarians are likely to be hearing quite a bit about in the coming days. Three reasons.
One, Wynne has been bombarding the airwaves with anti-NDP attack ads for weeks. She has even (rashly) gone to the trouble of narrating the attacks ads herself. How can she expect voters to now understand her sudden desire to leap into bed with Andrea Horwath? To many, it makes no sense. Either the NDP is a threat to democracy, or they are a partner in governing. They cannot be both.
Two, Wynne has effectively given Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak an excellent way to change the channel on his current dilemma. At the campaign’s outset, you see, Hudak announced his “million jobs plan,” and who can be against creating a million jobs? But then, immediately thereafter, the PC leader also declared his intention to fire 100,000 public servants.
To voters, that didn’t make much sense. How can you say you are going to create a lot of jobs, and then simultaneously flush a lot of jobs?
Wynne’s surprise announcement gives a relieved Hudak a stick with which he will beat the Liberals, and change the aforementioned channel on his own problems.
Thirdly, and finally, Wynne’s timing was terrible. One should never, ever indulge in coalition-talk around elections (ask Stephane Dion). For one thing, it suggests to everyone that you think you are going to lose. For another, it looks like you are trying to circumvent the people’s will with a dirty backroom deal.
Kathleen Wynne was, as noted, quite entitled to talk up coalitions. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t just handed an undeserved victory to her opponent.
Ask Stephen Harper. He knows.