Toronto: A tearful Kathleen Wynne stepped down as Ontario’s Liberal leader Thursday as the party she propelled to a majority government only four years ago was reduced to a skeleton crew, losing official status in the legislature.
Wynne, who had predicted her party’s loss a few days ago, said resigning was the right thing to do.
“There is another generation and I am passing the torch to that generation,” she told a crowd of supporters at a north Toronto gallery after the Progressive Conservatives won a majority.
“I know that tonight is not the result we were looking for and no one feels that more sharply than I do, but this is not a moment where any of us should linger. We can’t stay here,” she said.
“I hope that you can feel very proud of what we have done together in the past and absolutely determined to take on the task that lies ahead.”
Wynne said her speech was meant as a thank you rather than a concession, since she already admitted last weekend that her party would lose.
But her weekend bombshell was followed by an appeal to elect as many Liberals as possible, a move she said at the time was meant to prevent either of her NDP or Progressive Conservative rivals from achieving a majority.
Party insiders have said Wynne’s call was also an 11th-hour effort to hold on to official party status _ eight seats are needed to do so.
But even traditional Liberal strongholds such as Toronto Centre and Toronto-St. Paul’s fell as a hunger for change swept through the province. The party retained a pocket of three seats in the Ottawa area, Wynne’s own Toronto riding and the neighbouring one, as well as a northern seat.
Wynne, who was first elected as a school trustee, has seen her personal popularity ratings drop over her time in government.
She has been criticized for decisions that include a spring budget that plunged the province back into deficit, the partial privatization of Hydro One, and the rate at which hikes to minimum wage are being brought in.
The Liberals’ intent on pushing through their agenda while in office may have made them appear disconnected from average voters and their needs, said Kathy Brock, a political science professor at Queen’s University.
Wynne herself became a focus of resentment, Brock said. “When a female politician starts to go down she faces more anger than a male politician and I think we saw that with Kathleen Wynne,” she said.
The party made a critical error in failing to account for Wynne’s dwindling popularity early on in the campaign, she said.
“Knowing where Kathleen Wynne was polling, they should have pulled her out of the public eye, they shouldn’t have had her so front and centre, they should have featured other candidates and their policies and let her speak in the debates where she’s strong,” she said.
Wynne’s pre-emptive concession was another crucial misstep, Brock said, noting many were put off by what they saw as a premature capitulation.
It will be tremendously difficult for the Liberals to bounce back without official party status, since they will no longer have access to legislative supports such as research assistance, she said.
This election marks the first time the provincial Liberals, in power for the last 15 years, fall in so short a time from “the pinnacle that is majority government to the abyss,” said Dan Rath, a political analyst and co-author of “Not Without Cause: David Peterson’s Fall From Grace,” which looked at a past Liberal premier.
“I think you have to go back almost a century … to find a comparable situation in terms of the challenges the party faces,” he said, pointing to the Liberals’ dramatic decline in the early 1900s and their eventual resurgence in the 1930s under the leadership of Mitch Hepburn.
Rath said the social and cultural shift that propelled Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 was also a factor in Ontario’s election, where Tory Leader Doug Ford used populist messaging to appeal to voters.
Rath suggested Wynne’s plea to save Liberal seats was meant to undermine Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats in order to pave the way for a Liberal comeback.
“The belief is that in the face of a PC government…the Liberals believe they have the best chance of rebuilding in the next few years,” he said.
“Because the performance of a PC government will be so catastrophic, will be so abhorrent to progressives, it will create a climate within which it is easier or more conducive for the Liberals to rebuild,” he said.
Horwath said she was not surprised by Wynne’s decision to step down as party leader, but she praised the premier’s long career in public life.
“She broke the glass ceiling and girls and women around our province are very proud of the fact that we had the first female premier in Kathleen Wynne,” Horwath said. “I congratulate her for that victory.”
The Canadian Press