How two women hope to stave off political defeat - Macleans.ca

How two women hope to stave off political defeat

Kathleen Wynne and Pauline Marois face the country’s biggest political challenges

by
Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Though they aren’t exactly ideological twins, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and her Ontario counterpart, Kathleen Wynne, will find themselves in remarkably similar circumstances in 2014. They are the first women to lead their respective provinces. They are seasoned politicians who are relatively new to the top job. They both face challenges of humdrum poll numbers and newly invigorated opposition.

And because Ontarians and Quebecers elected minority governments, Marois and Wynne must navigate the two most volatile political atmospheres in the country. The federal budget, expected in the spring, will affect provincial budgets and introduce the very real spectre of elections in both provinces. It begs the question: who stands the better chance of surviving?

It’s going to be a rough year for both leaders. On the economic front, an expected bad-news budget reflecting a drop in government revenues and a return to deficit spending will give Marois’s opposition plenty of fodder. In Ontario, the cancellation of two gas-fired electricity plants—a billion-dollar debacle wrought by the previous government, in which Wynne was a minister—has overshadowed the looming problem of the province’s ballooning debt.

Marois and Wynne head into possible elections in 2014 with high hopes from their respective bases. Wynne is the first openly gay Ontario premier. Marois returned the Parti Québécois to power after a decade in the political wilderness—a burst of hope for the province’s moribund sovereigntist movement. The two aren’t exactly well-loved by their electorates, though. Marois, a popular minister in previous PQ governments, never set Quebec’s collective imagination alight as PQ leader and premier. A brief honeymoon after the 2012 election, in which her government replaced the scandal-ridden reign of Jean Charest’s Liberals, quickly came to an end amid a flurry of policy reversals and blown election promises.

The PQ government’s so-called charter of Quebec values, which would prohibit public-sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols at work, had a galvanizing effect on Marois’s popularity. She consolidated support among her base and won back some of the votes lost to the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the province’s third-largest political party. Yet the charter has been extremely divisive, with opposition coming from immigrant groups and former PQ premiers alike. It is perhaps why Marois’s approval ratings are stubbornly stuck in the mid-30s, according to poll aggregator threehundredeight.com.

Unlike Marois, Wynne’s problems aren’t of her own making—at least, not entirely. The cancellation of those electricity plants was a nakedly political pander to Oakville and Mississauga, the vote-rich suburbs where the plants were to be built. Wynne may not have been directly involved, but the incident is a reminder of how attached she is to the costly and fractious decade-long legacy of former premier Dalton McGuinty. Ontario’s premier has more than a whiff of the old guard to her.

Minority governments are built to fall, and it is a deft political leader who chooses the circumstances to do so. Marois is deft, but also a bit stuck. This spring, PQ Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau will present a deficit budget. Government revenues from a sales-tax hike were lower than expected, while revenues from the province’s burgeoning mining sector are expected to be $690 million less than forecast. The province has the lowest rate of economic expansion and the highest debt-to-GDP ratio of any province.

Marois’s opposition knows this all too well. Having secured a seat, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard will return to the National Assembly for the first time since he left politics in 2008. He is the most popular leader in the province, more so than CAQ Leader François Legault. Come the next election, Couillard’s tenure as Liberal leader will likely herald a return to the two-way horse race of the type that has dominated Quebec for half a century. And while the PQ has outpaced the Liberals in fundraising, Marois’s disapproval numbers have remained chronically high.

Wynne would seem to have a little more wiggle room. With her party just five seats short of a majority, she leads what Liberal spinmeisters like to call a “near majority.” The Progressive Conservative party is beset by squabbles surrounding the leadership of Tim Hudak. Mercifully for Wynne, the gas plant cancellations haven’t been nearly the political bombshell her opponents hoped.

Yet Ontario faces its own economic storm clouds. Its projected deficit for 2013-14 is $11.7 billion, while its debt, at $288 billion, accounts for about 37 per cent of GDP. Left unchecked, the sea of red ink in Canada’s most populous province is only going to get bigger, according to a report released in 2012—one largely ignored by the very government that commissioned it. The so-called Drummond Report outlines that public debt will hit $411 billion by 2017-18 unless government spending is curtailed. The report calls for an “almost certainly unprecedented” 2.4 per cent decrease in all government programs in nearly every government department, and more modest increases in areas such as education and health care.

This is a particular quandary for Wynne. The premier leaned on Ontario’s New Democrats to support her government, which meant bowing to the NDP’s spending increases in the most recent budget. Spending will likely go up should Wynne continue to placate the NDP in the next budget. If she doesn’t and the government falls, Wynne has an able political foe in the NDP’s Andrea Horwath.

Though the NDP is the third party, Horwath is the most popular political leader in the province, according to successive polls. Hanging on to power will be a balancing act for Wynne; she’ll have to stave off Horwath on her left without alienating the conservative-leaning suburbs to her right.

The unofficial election campaigns have already begun in Quebec and Ontario. The Marois government has made 250 spending announcements in the last three months alone. Yet given her poll numbers, Marois might be reticent to head into elections. She might well have a friend in the CAQ, which has its own popularity issues. If Quebec avoids an election this fall, it will be because its main parties are too gun-shy to disagree with one another. The Wynne camp, meanwhile, has released an election-style advertisement showing the premier jogging. “I love running,” Wynne says in her own voice-over. It’s perhaps Wynne’s best news for the coming year: she has more control than Marois over whether she runs or not.