The Hill Times (May 1st 2917)
To say Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s leadership is in trouble is an understatement. However, to say that she will lose the next election is premature. The face of success or failure is the face of the leader, but the leader is not necessarily responsible for either.
Many times, the problem is with the people behind the scenes. By removing them, or changing the political image, the problem can sometimes disappear.
There are many precedents that show how changing the leader is not necessarily the best course of action.
For example, replacing Jean Chrétien with Paul Martin didn’t work. Conversely, former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama managed to win second terms by revamping the team and/or the strategies.
Politics, now, is about understanding voters who can now develop their own narrative because of modern technology. To win their support, it’s important to understand that narrative. Ontarians, for example, know that they are not the worst drivers in North America. Yet they pay the worst insurance premiums. They also know that, because of the law, dishonest individuals legally milk insurance companies, the insurance companies defend themselves by legally milking good drivers, and governments do nothing while honest citizens are legally robbed. While Wynne and her government are not responsible for no-fault insurance, she is still the premier, and people need an answer from her—now.
People in Ontario know that hydro bills are too high. The premier must address the problem, regardless of who caused it. Social issues are very important, but if people cannot afford a car and are afraid to turn their lights on, they are probably not in the best state of mind to support (or even give much attention to) other initiatives and issues.
Former American presidents Clinton and Obama both faced this dilemma, deeply reassessing the priorities they promoted in their first term to be re-elected in the second term. Clinton understood that he had to change gears to win the second term, but his team refused the change. So he changed the team. He got rid not only of George Stephanopoulos and his gang, but also pushed aside his wife Hillary, who had enormous influence in the first part of his presidency.
Dick Morris, one of the architects of the second term of Clinton’s victory, in his book The New Prince, wrote that “leadership is a dynamic tension between where a politician thinks his country must go and where his voters want it to go.”
Obama didn’t change the team. Top strategists like David Axelrod and Jim Messina were rehired, but the team changed the approach, focusing on domestic and economic issues. He rearranged the promise to re-deploy troops in Iraq, and closed Guantanamo. He changed his view on gay marriage from negative to positive. He changed his views about raising the debt ceiling, and delayed the decriminalization of marijuana.
I suspect that Wynne and her advisers are missing this part of the equation, counting on another opposition crash that might only lead to a minority government— just like Paul Martin.
When Wynne took over Dalton McGuinty’s government, she could disenfranchise from it only because voters didn’t like the alternative, Conservative Tim Hudak (contrary to Paul Martin who took over from Jean Chrétien only to be phased out by Stephen Harper). In the next election, Wynne will run on her record, and people—according to the polls—don’t like it.
She has the same dilemma faced by Martin, Obama, and Clinton to win second terms. Obama and Clinton won. Martin didn’t. Wynne must revamp her team and the mentality of her organization. David Plouffe, in his book The Audacity to Win, wrote that “a staff is not an organization; a staff is there to support a local organization.”
Local organizers and volunteers are not puppets at the disposal of puppeteers crawling in the hallways of Queen’s Park or Macdonald Block (the Ontario government’s version of Langevin Block). She must promote a bottom-up approach, letting her supporters feel that she and her team are there to represent them, not to use them to promote policies that they don’t understand or, worse, they are against. It might be too late, but the only hope for her to win the next election is to create a team that will put her in touch with Ontarians, address their concerns, and create an effective communication team to promote her plan. Her resignation is not the only option, probably not even the best.
Angelo Persichilli is a freelance journalist and a former citizenship judge for the Greater Toronto Area. He was also a director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper and is former columnist for Toronto Star, Toronto Sun and former political editor of Corriere Canadese, Canada’s Italian-language newspaper in Toronto.