Kathleen Wynne: At mandate midpoint, looking way ahead

Wynne sets her sights long term; experts call it a risky strategy

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

TORONTO _ Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne dreams of a rosy future of cleaner air, pensions for all and billions of dollars of gleaming new infrastructure.

But she is now halfway through her mandate, and her hopes of re-election in 2018 may depend on voters sharing her long-term view.

Wynne spoke about her legacy projects in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, saying she believes people want infrastructure, comfortable retirements and a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

“I’m not doing it because it’s long term, but I think government exists to do those things that are going to be of course beneficial in the immediate future, but are going to last and are going to create economic prosperity going forward,” she said.

But some observers call it a risky electoral strategy.

“All too often, we think political leaders are overly concerned with the next election, so this is a bit unusual and to be applauded,” said Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University.

“On the other hand, the voters oftentimes have a short-term focus and that’s why the politicians often do …. People have a very short-term view of what’s good or bad for them.”

In the same year that Ontario residents next go to the polls, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan — branded a job-killer by business groups and the Progressive Conservatives — kicks in for larger companies. It requires contributions of 1.9 per cent of pay from employers and a matching amount from workers — up to $1,643 a year from each.

But Wynne said she doesn’t believe the plan will be a tough sell to voters in 2018.

“People are very supportive generally of having retirement security,” she said. “If you look at public opinion polls, it’s very clear that people are anxious; they’re not only anxious about their own retirement security, they’re anxious about their kids’ retirement security.”

The Liberal government’s cap-and-trade program, an initiative that gives industries emissions caps and allows them to buy and sell credits, is set to roll out in 2017. The Liberals say it will generate $1.9 billion, money that will go toward incentives for helping people and businesses lower their carbon footprints.

But it will also add $5 a month to home heating bills and 4.3 cents a litre to the price of gasoline.

Wynne said at the same time, people will have money in their pockets to retrofit their homes and invest in electric vehicles.

“I’m confident that as we roll out the climate change action plan, people are going to see the benefits,” she said. “Underlying all that is a real consensus and a knowledge among Ontarians, and I would suggest Canadians, that we have to tackle climate change.”

Asking voters for trust that a policy is for the long-term good is never an easy argument, said Genevieve Tellier, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa.

“People will accept it once they see the benefits or once they get used to it,” she said.

“I will make a parallel with the HST. At the begining nobody liked it and everybody was against it. Now we are used to the HST…It’s kind of accepted and basically it’s probably the best consumer tax that we could establish.”

The New Democrats have been critical of Wynne’s planned sale of 60 per cent of Hydro One, saying it’s irresponsible to forego the annual $750 million in revenue from the public utility.

She has pitched the privatization as a necessary way to fund much-needed infrastructure, planning to put $4 billion from the sale toward the Liberal government’s pledge of spending $160 billion on infrastructure over 12 years.

Wynne may not be able to point to a vast new array of roads and public transit lines as direct results of the Hydro One sale in 2018 because of the length of those projects, but she argues that she’s been building infrastructure throughout her time as premier.

“I hope my legacy is that people will see that I’ve built the province up, that the work that we have done is building a strong, strong foundation for our eoncomy going forward,” Wynne said.

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