Ontario's incoming premier vows to work with opposition, avoid elections

TORONTO – Working with the opposition parties, repairing relations with teachers and dealing with the Liberal government’s past mistakes are some of the top priorities for the woman who will become Ontario’s first female premier.

Kathleen Wynne, 59, won the Liberal leadership Saturday, while thousands of union activists and teachers angry over having contracts imposed on them protested outside the party’s convention at the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

But while she wants to repair relations with teachers, who are angry at the Liberals for imposing contracts on them, the incoming premier made it clear she won’t cave to their demands, and wants them to return to supervising after-class clubs and sports.

“I’m not going to rip up those contracts, but I’ve also been very clear that we have to engage in a conversation about extracurriculars,” she told reporters Sunday.

Wynne, who will also be Canada’s first openly gay premier, said she hopes her historic victory will give a message of hope to young gay people, but added she’s not a gay activist and that’s not why she entered politics.

Wynne said she wants to try to keep the minority government alive by working with the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats rather than have a general election, and had a “very good” initial conversation with Opposition Leader Tim Hudak late Saturday night.

“Tim and I have always had a pretty collegial interaction with each other, I’m sure that will get more formal, but it was a good opening conversation and I’m going to take that at face value,” she said.

“I will sit down with him and hope that we can find a way to have a conversation on the things that we can agree on.”

The Conservatives opposed every initiative by the minority Liberal government except for Bill 115, which imposed contracts on teachers, and indicated Sunday they’re not going to change tactics, launching attack ads calling Wynne “another Liberal Ontario can’t afford.”

The Tories said Wynne doesn’t seem concerned about Ontario’s huge deficit and jobs shortage, and warned she won’t be able to escape the problems that plagued the government since it was reduced to a minority in Oct. 2011.

“I think the past is not going to go away,” said PC critic Vic Fedelli.

“The auditor general will be bringing the gas plants scandal, the Mississauga portion of it, to the legislature very soon, and the criminal investigation into Ornge is being done by the OPP ,and that will come to the legislature.”

The New Democrats also warned Wynne would have to deal with the problems McGuinty left behind.

“They have a nine-year record that’s hard to run away from,” said NDP house leader Gilles Bisson.

“How is everything that people felt about the Liberal party different this morning than it was last night when Mr. McGuinty was still their premier?

Ontarians don’t want a general election, they want their politicians to work together on issues, said Wynne.

“The rancour and the viciousness of the legislature can’t continue. We absolutely have to continue to work out our disagreements,” she said.

“What I’m hoping is that, if we can build a relationship among the three party leaders and among the three caucuses, we’ll be able to have that debate without the poison of that real viciousness.”

Wynne, who will hold her first caucus meeting Tuesday, said she hasn’t had time to start talking to people about building her cabinet, nor arrange a time for the transition in power, but she will recall the prorogued legislature by Feb. 19.

She insisted the cash-strapped government, facing an $11.9-billion deficit, can balance its books and make sure no one falls through the cracks, and promised more help for the poor.

“They are both priorities, that’s the reality, and that’s what being a Liberal is about,” said Wynne.

“We have a social assistance system in this province that penalizes people, that does not support people getting into jobs and keeping them there, so I’m going to be looking for ways to do that because ultimately, it’s in the best interests of the economy.”

As for the problems left behind by McGuinty _ the politically motivated and expensive cancellation of gas plants, the spread of industrial wind turbines in rural areas, a police probe of the province’s Ornge air ambulance service — Wynne said she was ready to deal with them all.

But she wouldn’t admit they had hurt the Liberal brand.

“We are going to be very clear with the people of Ontario that we understand where there were mis-steps and where we need to go forward,” she said.

“That will, I think, build on the brand,” she said.

Wynne said she was looking forward to working with other premiers across the country.

The next meeting of Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders is going to look, and perhaps act differently than previous male-dominated meetings, added Wynne, who will be the sixth female premier in the meeting.

“(Quebec Premier) Pauline Marios has already reached out to me,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to talking with all of them, and I think the conversation at that table of premiers will be very interesting, and I look forward to chairing that meeting.”

The Council of the Federation, the annual meeting of premiers, will be held in Niagara-on-the-Lake July 24-26.