Duncan: At halfway point, it's time for the Premier to take stock

Duncan: At halfway point, it’s time for the Premier to take stock

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The following is a column by Dwight Duncan, the former Ontario finance minister and current senior strategic adviser at McMillan LLP.

Next month marks the midpoint in Premier Kathleen Wynne’s mandate. Two years have passed since her stunning majority victory on June 12, 2014.

With summer approaching, the government will no doubt be anxious to exit the legislature. The opposition less so, but all three major parties need the summer recess to recalibrate and begin mapping out the strategy that will take them through the 2018 general election.

Each of them needs to examine thoroughly what has gone right and gone wrong for them since the 41st parliament convened. They also need to take account of how the world around them has changed and make their own assessments of where things will be two years from now.

Wynne’s greatest challenge is to bring clearer focus to her agenda and make sure she has the right supporting cast to take her through the next election.

Recent public polling and the coverage it has received seems to suggest that Wynne is in difficulty. Given that she is at the midpoint of her mandate, and has not shied away from difficult decisions, her numbers are not all that bad. By and large people seem to like her. At the very least, only a few seem to strongly dislike her.

If the Premier has a problem, it probably has more to do with people being tired of her and her party. By 2018, the Ontario Liberals will have been in office for 15 years. Governments acquire a lot of baggage in that amount of time. She not only carries the accumulated weight of her own miscues,  but also those of the previous Liberal government of which she was a part.

The Premier herself does not attract the same volume of strong reactions, good and bad, that many of her predecessors did. My sense, however, is that she is overexposed in the media. She needs to rely more on her colleagues to carry the can on some of the more controversial issues.

The good news for Wynne and her Liberals is that, while they may be down, they are far from out. Now, the Liberals need to take back control of the political agenda.

First, they should prorogue the legislature and begin the fall session with a Speech from the Throne. The goal of this would be to bring greater focus to the government’s agenda for the balance of its mandate. While the order paper normally dies with prorogation, it can be kept alive by motion of the legislature. This will allow hearings on political finance reform to proceed this summer followed by the adoption of legislation in the fall.

The government’s communications have been anything but good. The issues that have dominated provincial political debate since the new year have not been public transit or climate change or post-retirement income. Rather, they are issues that have been foisted on them by others and by events. Political finance and issues surrounding the behaviour of MPPs, while important, should not be dominating the agenda.

People are key to improved communications. Wynne needs to take a hard look at her cabinet and make sure she has the best political minds and communicators in the right portfolios. She needs to make better use of the good ones and move out those who aren’t. Finally, and again this is good news for the Liberals, she has a solid back-bench with a range of potential choices, as well as some less senior ministers who have shown real promise to date.

Building a cabinet is one of the most difficult jobs any leader has. Wynne’s challenge is made more so by the need to avoid unnecessary byelections. Many members of her cabinet and caucus have a lot of years of service and are likely assessing whether or not they will run in 2018. A demotion, or being passed over for a promotion, could hasten those decisions. Unplanned byelections add uncertainty and could even cost the government its majority.

There needs to be a thorough evaluation of staffing both in the Premier's office and across the government. A number of top-notch people were lost to the Trudeau Liberals last year. There are no doubt others who want out and others still who should be moved out. Political management has not been as sharp since the 2014 election as it was in the lead up to that election.

Finally, the Premier, her campaign team, and senior political advisers will have to take stock of everything that has happened in the world since 2014 and start anticipating what will happen in the coming two years. Political and economic upheaval in Canada and around the world will impact Ontario and the result of the 2018 election.

While it's true a day is a long time in politics, two years is not much time to prepare yourself for what will be a tough re-election campaign.

Dwight Duncan
Senior Strategic Advisor, McMillan LLP

Dwight Duncan has been a senior strategic adviser to McMillan LLP, the Toronto-based business law firm, since March 2013. He advises the firm's clients on investing and operating in Canada and abroad. A long-time MPP from Windsor, Duncan became Ontario finance minister in 2005 and held the cabinet post until he left politics in 2013. Duncan was also minister of energy, revenue minister and deputy premier, among other posts in the McGuinty government.

Dwight Duncan

Dwight Duncan is former Minister of Finance for Ontario. He is now a senior strategic advisor at McMillan LLP.

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