TORONTO — Running for political office sometimes means running from your party’s history, which can make it tricky to avoid being tripped up by the ghosts of premiers past.
Kathleen Wynne has been Ontario premier for just 15 months, making her the only rookie leader in the campaign for the June 12 election, but she’s not the only one who must deal with voters’ vivid memories of high-profile former premiers.
Cameron Anderson, associate professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, said Wynne has the biggest task in trying to distance herself from former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, who left office in 2012 under the cloud of the gas plants scandal, which voters later learned could cost them up to $1.1 billion.
“Wynne is the immediate inheritor of everything that McGuinty did, for good or for ill, depending on your perspective, but deficits, ballooning debt, scandals — that’s fresher in people’s minds,” Anderson said in an interview.
“McGuinty is the bigger ghost, but it’s certainly the case that (Mike) Harris lurks.”
McGuinty has made Wynne’s life a little easier by keeping a very low profile at Harvard University since leaving office, but she has to make voters judge her, and her ideas for the future, not the 10-year government of which she played an integral part.
“I’m taking my integrity and my record on the road,” Wynne said while campaigning.
The Liberal leader has walked a fine line, taking responsibility for the positive things that happened under McGuinty like full day kindergarten — she was a minister in his cabinet for 10 years — but said the gas plant decisions were not handled properly.
“I came into this office just over a year ago, very proud of many of the things that we had done as government since 2003, and there were some mistakes that had been made,” Wynne said.
“I knew the challenges that we were confronting, and for the last year I have been changing the rules and I have been changing the way we do government.”
The opposition parties said Wynne can’t escape the scandal completely because she was Liberal campaign co-chair in 2011 and signed one of the key documents paving the way for the cancellation of the gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga.
Even though he’s in his second election as PC Leader, Tim Hudak is still fighting accusations that he’s just a newer version of former premier Mike Harris — “Harris 2.0” is better than the “mini-Mike” tag the Liberals tried to slap on him in 2011.
Harris is considered one of Ontario’s most polarizing former leaders after he slashed government programs and spending under the mantra “tax cuts create jobs.” His deep cuts were blamed in part for the tainted water tragedy in Walkerton that killed seven and made 2,500 sick in May 2000, an issue Wynne raised in this campaign to warn that Hudak plans to make cuts twice as deep as Harris imposed.
Harris also engaged in a virtual war with teachers that led to eight years of strikes and lockouts in schools, greatly reduced welfare benefits and cut the number of people on social assistance virtually in half, while downloading social program costs to municipalities.
But Anderson said unlike the other leaders, Hudak doesn’t seem to be afraid of the Harris legacy — arguably more controversial than that of Bob Rae or McGuinty — and would follow his mentor’s lead in slashing government programs and services.
“Hudak doesn’t seem to be running from that (legacy) per se,” said Anderson.
“By saying there’s tough choices and we’ve got to make some decisions, so if people make the analogy to Harris in the mid-90s, he doesn’t seem to be saying he’s going to run from it.”
Hudak said he’s giving people “the hard talk and the plain truth” about the need to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, and is proud of his time in the Harris cabinet.
“If people want to judge me on being part of a government that led North America in job creation, they can chose yeah or nay, but if you want to judge me at what the next eight years will look like, look at my plan,” he said while campaigning.
For years, Ontario’s New Democrats bore the weight of the unpopular Bob Rae NDP government of 1990-95 like a millstone around their necks, even though he long ago switched political parties and, in fact, was interim federal Liberal leader until Justin Trudeau took over in April.
But Anderson said Rae doesn’t seem to be a factor in the 2014 Ontario campaign, in part because of his “political evolution” as a Liberal and the fact his premiership is more distant than the other two.
“I haven’t really heard too much of people referring to Bob Rae, There’s not that spectre of Bob Rae that lurks,” he said. “It’s either Harris or McGuinty.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, in her second election as party leader, has heard little mention of the Rae years, other than random shots from Wynne and Hudak about the NDP’s dismal record in government — running up then-record deficits while huge numbers were added to the welfare rolls.
But she wants to portray a much more business friendly and fiscally responsible NDP, boasting of the party’s success as government in other provinces.
“New Democrat governments have had fewer deficit budgets than any other party, and when they have run deficits, they’ve been smaller as a ratio to the GDP. It’s something that we’re proud of,” said Horwath.
“This campaign, this election, this province is about what’s happening now, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on.”
The words Bob Rae never crossed her lips.