Fighting for likes

Kathleen Wynne has had to reckon with her likability this Ontario election. Days before voting, she conceded defeat.
June 2, 2018, 2:40pm

Most people have a strong desire to be liked. And regardless of how her latest campaign ad might come across, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is no different.

“I’m sorry more people don’t like me,” Wynne says in a voiceover in the 30-second advertisement released last week. She’s looking down at first, but gradually lifts her head to stare directly into the camera. What she’s not sorry for, she says, is all the ways the Liberal government has made life better for the people of Ontario. As she recites her government’s accomplishments over the last five years, her expressionless face breaks into a defiant grin.

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It’s an ad that has received mixed reviews — praise for its frankness and acknowledgment of the Liberals’ current situation, but also criticism for what people see as a smug or flippant response for the aggressive disdain Ontarians feel for the Premier, days ahead of the provincial election. But Wynne stands by it.

“I think it helped to confront the reality of this whole discussion of my likeability, which I’ve been answering for a year. It helped me to just say, fine, I get that, it doesn’t make me happy, I wish it were different, but let’s set that aside,” she said in an interview with VICE News.

Days later, standing before a playground in Toronto on Saturday, she conceded she would lose the election and urged voters to block a Progressive Conservative or NDP majority government by electing as many Liberal MPs as possible.

During the interview with VICE News, she said the criticism that the ad is smug is one she can’t wrap her head around.

“I don’t even actually understand that because it was hard to say,” she says. “It’s hard to answer questions day after day about why people don’t like you. That’s not a comfortable thing, so I don’t know where the idea of smugness comes in.”

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“All I was trying to do is say I get that. It makes me sad, it’s not the way I ever thought I’d be seen with the people of Ontario,” she continues. “I love the people of this province… and so to have polls that say that say the vast majority of people don’t feel that way about me, that’s not a comfortable position, so it felt to me, when I was standing on stage like it was the opposite of smug.”

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With advance polls already open and less than a week to go until the election, Wynne is asking voters to forget about how they feel about her personally and focus on what policies are best for the province.

On June 7, technically voters in Canada’s most populous province face the choice between three different visions, but for the past few weeks, it’s felt more like a two-way race, with the third option completely forgotten. It’s how even Wynne frames what the election means to her.

“It’s a very important election because there are two really different views of how the province should continue and how we should continue to build the province,” she says.

Wynne is trailing far behind both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP. But the leader is refusing to go down quietly, with a packed schedule of appearances every day until the election.

She briefly mentions that the economy is thriving and that the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 23 years. She says she’d continue to give free tuition for low and middle income students, prescription medication for young people, making sure that the minimum wage continues to go up, stressing that those are crucial elements of a strong economy and that “making sure people have what they need helps an economy to thrive.”

"I tell the truth. I don’t talk in slogans, and I don’t pretend that things that are complicated are simple."

“Doug Ford doesn’t buy into that, and so, I feel very strongly that this is an important election to really make some choices about these things,” she says.

Throughout the conversation, Wynne repeatedly takes aim at Ford, who hasn’t explained how he would cut taxes without cutting services or laying off government employees aside from promising to “find efficiencies,” and the NDP, for putting forward what she believes are impractical solutions to problems that are too intertwined with ideology.

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She brings up the 3,000 York University contract faculty and teaching assistants who have been on strike for the last three months.

“There’s no end in sight in that strike, and that’s why we introduced back to work legislation,” she says. In November, the NDP voted down a motion to immediately pass back to work legislation without debate and have said they would never introduce it.

“The government needs to have the tool to act in the public interest whether it’s a college and university strike, whether it’s an education strike, teachers’ strike, a transit strike,” Wynne continues. “But what the NDP has said — and this is because they’re so tied to an ideology, because they’re so tied to the union position — they have said they would not ever introduce back to work legislation. That’s a concrete example of that impracticality.”

This position, that the NDP is too attached to ideology — one Wynne has argued repeatedly over the past week — has already cost Wynne the endorsement of the Ontario’s teachers’ union and drawn criticisms that she’s abandoned her principles.

Wynne insists, however, that she’s a supporter of organized labour.

"I’m idealistic if not ideological, you know?"

“I don’t think it’s so much about fighting [ideology] as understanding it and working with it and making it clear that I’m idealistic if not ideological, you know?” she continues. “For me, what being idealistic is about is having a vision and believing that vision is possible. Being idealistic and optimistic about the capacity of government to do good things for people.”

There hasn’t been enough focus on policy at all this election cycle, says Wynne, whose party has also been the one to expose Ford for allegedly buying bogus PC party memberships, and lodged an official complaint against his fundraising activity.

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“Doug Ford has not talked about policy at all,” she says. “The NDP has been disingenuous about the fact that there’s a lot of overlap between us, and that we do share a value system.”

“I’ve said that repeatedly, but the NDP has acted as though everything we’ve done is bad, and I just think that is… it’s not right, it’s not true, and it doesn’t reflect the reality and similarities of the shared value system that we have, and that’s disappointing to me actually because I think that would change the discussion around this election.”

For the past year, however, what Wynne has been forced to reckon with is the question of her likeability.

“I think there’s a whole bunch of things that are playing into this,” she says, when asked why she thinks people don’t like her. “I think we’ve been in office for a long time, I think there’s some decisions that we made that were tough for me, that people didn’t like or expect from me.”

The decision to sell a 53-percent stake in Hydro One to raise money for transit and debt repayment is one, she acknowledges.

"The NDP has acted as though everything we’ve done is bad… it’s not true, and it doesn’t reflect the reality and similarities of the shared value system that we have."

“I promised we’d build transit, and we couldn’t just keep borrowing and we couldn’t raise everybody’s taxes,” she said. “We raised taxes on the highest earners in the province, but we couldn’t just keep doing that. It was a practical solution, and I know people didn’t like it. They were surprised by it.”

“That may have been the beginning of the, ‘She’s not who I thought she was.’ Beyond that, I can’t tell you,” she continues, predicting a mountain of analysis of her unpopularity after the election is over.

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Wynne, Canada’s the first openly lesbian Premier, deflected any suggestion that Ontarians are by and large sexist or homophobic. She acknowledges that there’s an element of misogyny and homophobia in the sentiment towards her, but she’s never used it as an “excuse.” She adds that the abuse she’s received has been online, and that the Trump presidency has added an “edge” to that rhetoric.

“People elected me in 2013, so I still believe… that the people in Ontario are not bigoted. I don’t think they see themselves as discriminating against other people. But misogyny and homophobia exist.”

Wynne has been criticized for being unable to communicate a simple enough message to voters. By contrast, Doug Ford doesn’t concern himself with the details. He speaks in sweeping sound bites that signal to voters what he cares about, without promising specifics. Or, as has been pointed out repeatedly, he promises things without explaining how he would make it a reality, or the consequences. But Wynne isn’t interested in changing her approach.

“I’ll never pretend that saying I’m going to cut your taxes and nothing is going to happen to education and health care and not one person will be laid off — that’s not true. That can’t be true,” she said. “I tell the truth. I don’t talk in slogans, and I don’t pretend that things that are complicated are simple.”

Cover image: Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne visits a daycare in Toronto, on Friday, May 18, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)