With passage of a labour bill hiking the hourly minimum wage to $15, Kathleen Wynne set the stage for an election showdown with the Conservatives.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published on Monday, November 27, 2017 in The Hill Times.
OTTAWA—Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne may have just governed her way to victory last week.
With passage of a labour bill hiking the hourly minimum wage to $15, Wynne set the stage for an election showdown with the Conservatives.
The Tories, who voted against the bill, are banking on the fact that business owners oppose the hike. The government says the changes will affect more than one-quarter of the workforce, including part-time workers. The legislation also provides for long-term statutory cost-of-living increases.
But politics is a numbers game. And one-quarter of the workforce adds up to a lot of votes.
This minimum wage fight provides a platform for the Liberals to campaign from the left, effectively neutering the New Democratic Party.
For the Liberals to win, they need to attract left-leaning voters to ensure the race becomes a split between the left and the right.
In voting against the bill last week, Conservative leader Patrick Brown played right into Wynne’s plan. That was a surprise because right up until the vote, Brown had managed to eschew the right-wing mantra that destroyed his predecessor Tim Hudak.
Hudak, who was on the conservative wing of the Progressive Conservative Party, sunk his own election chances by announcing a crazy plan to revive the economy by firing 100,000 civil servants.
That promise killed him, and should have been a harbinger to Brown’s team that campaigning from the right will not work in Ontario.
Had Brown supported the minimum wage hike, it would have been a non-issue in the election. Instead, the Conservatives have just handed a giant wedge issue to the Grits. And they are going to run all-out with it.
Six months ago, the prevailing view was that the Wynne Liberals were dead in the water.
Brown and the Conservatives were positioned to win in an election slated early next June, with the Grits lagging behind.
The New Democrats, led by experienced and articulate Andrea Horwath, would hang onto their core vote and pick up some seats from the fading Liberals.
For the New Democrats to experience any kind of a bounce, they need a wedge issue that separates them from the government.
Wynne, who has moved aggressively on traditional “left-leaning” issues like support for the LGBT community and anti-harassment legislation, has not given Horwath much wiggle room.
Meanwhile Tory leader Brown has been travelling the province, quietly honing his French-language skills, and avoiding mistakes.
A few messy Tory nominations created ripples, but political insiders know that hotly-contested nomination fights are usually a portent of a winning election.
The first indication that a party’s electoral chances are waning is when it cannot attract multiple candidates to a nomination.
The recent spate of retirement announcements by senior Liberal ministers is another signal that experienced politicians sense a sea change in the offing.
All Brown had to do was to occupy the muddling middle of the political spectrum and the change theme would have carried him to victory.
Politics is the one profession where the more experience you get the more people want to get rid of you. And the Liberals have already accomplished the near impossible; by getting elected for four successive terms with two different leaders. They have been in power for 14 years. Under those circumstances, defeat should be preordained.
However, Ontario has a historical habit of voting for years for single parties as long as they occupy the centre ground.
The Progressive Conservative run in the province was uninterrupted for more than four decades. Red Tory rule included respected leaders like John Robarts and William Davis, both of whom cherished their reputation for civility and moderation.
Instead of exploiting Liberal mistakes, the Tories have now set the stage for a single-issue campaign.
It will be the third election in a row where the Tories have defined their campaign on the wrong side of a wedge issue.
The first was when leader John Tory offered full funding for all religious schools. That promise led to his defeat.
This time, the decision to oppose a minimum wage hike puts the party at odds with one quarter of the potential electorate even before the campaign starts.
At the end of the day, there are more workers than owners.
“I’d rather walk with the workers than ride with General Motors,” was a famous quote from a former Liberal labour minister who resigned when the government of Mitch Hepburn introduced anti-union legislation back in 1937.
It stands the test of time.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.