Photo by Andrew Francis Wallace/Getstock
For such a momentous occasion - the Monday, February 11, swearing in of Ontario's first female (and openly gay) premier, Kathleen Wynne, and her new cabinet - the Queen's Park legislature was strangely... empty.
I'd somehow expected a scene worthy of a painting like those of the great and not-so-great men hanging in the hallways, so visitors to the Pink Palace generations from now could relive the moment. Silly, naive me. It's politics we're talking about here, after all.
Maybe half of the PCs' 36 MPPs managed to make it for the swearing in. On the NDP benches, all but three of the party's 18 members were no-shows, including leader Andrea Horwath, who (the official line is) had a previous engagement in Thunder Bay. She was there talking home care.Stealing Wynne's thunder in the Big Thunder?
Horwath later issued a statement congratulating Wynne and reiterating that "my team and I are ready to roll up our sleeves and make life better for the people who sent us here." Don't believe it.
If there's a message to be taken from Horwath's noticeable absence and the events that followed, it's that it's game on.
Wynne should expect no quarter, given how her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, slithered off the hook a few months back, proroguing the house just as that gas plant scandal was blowing up. Fair enough. As a key member of the 2011 campaign team, Wynne had a hand in the decision to move the plant from Mississauga to save the Libs a seat.
And truth be told, Horwath and the NDP have the most to lose with a leftish pol now occupying the preem's seat. Namely, the votes of those teachers' unions currently parked with the Dippers.
On Wynne's big day, though, the politics cut three ways. Besides the PC and NDP no-shows, the green leather seats of a dozen or so Liberal MPPs who didn't support Wynne for leader sat empty. The bad blood from her win's running a little thicker among Lib party ranks than most expected.
All in all, it wasn't the most promising start. Those good vibes in the aftermath of Wynne's convention win have all but vanished in the stone cold reality of the 10 years of political baggage she's been left holding thanks to McGuinty.
The narrow window of opportunity that pundits say Wynne has for putting her mark on things is about to slam shut. And that metaphorical window may itself be an illusion.
By the time the press convened in the government caucus office post-swearing-in to hear from Wynne and her newly minted cabinet ministers, the PCs had already dispatched Todd Smith, who in a past life was the radio play-by-play voice of the Belleville Bulls hockey team, to crash the party.
Didn't take long for the shit to start flying, Smith calling it a "big concern" that Wynne's partner, Jane Rounthwaite, co-owns a company that's provided executives to Ontario government ministries on a contract basis in the past. The integrity commissioner has been notified by Wynne to make sure there'll be no potential conflicts of interest, but you get the picture. Plus ça change....
Indeed, the PCs released a new attack ad just last week, the second since Wynne became leader. Yet leader Tim Hudak had seemed so amiable during the swearing-in, smiling (albeit looking a little like a Doberman pinscher) and clapping politely.
NDP house leader Gilles Bisson, meanwhile, was characterizing some of Wynne's cabinet selections as patronage plums for supporters. So how to explain Harinder Takhar's rise to chair of management board of cabinet even though he supported Sandra Pupatello for leader. But, hey, who's keeping score?
Then, when Wynne finally emerged to field questions from the assembled press, the ghost of McGuinty materialized. At that very moment, the former leader sent out a tweet thanking Ontarians for their years of support. The profile page on his account still listed him as premier of Ontario, though he'd officially resigned hours earlier.
Wynne's political career has been marked by an uncanny ability to exceed expectations. Her likeability has won over political opponents in the past. But the task at hand seems daunting even for someone of her appreciable political talents.
If timing is everything in politics, and mostly it is, then we may need an election after all to sort this one out. The continuing posturing at Queen's Park suggests as much. The poll numbers, too, have been slowly inching up on the question of an election.
Wynne still has two cards up her sleeve. There's a Throne Speech, being written as you read this. That document won't offer many specifics, but it will be the clearest signal yet of how Wynne plans to juggle her oft-stated priorities of balancing the budget (and satisfying the money-grubbers on Bay and Wall Streets) with her pledge to make her government more socially conscious.
But it's the budget everyone's waiting for, which may be delivered in March - or not. Newly appointed finance minister Charles Sousa wasn't offering hard timelines Monday.
But others among Wynne's cabinet provided clues about what might be in store in that all-important document. Minister of Community and Social Services Ted McMeekin hinted at a hike in the minimum wage. Money for youth employment, a demand of the NDP's, also looks like it may form part of the budget.
Wynne has herself signalled her support for road tolls to fund more public transit and break the grip of gridlock in the GTHA.
Meanwhile, there are wounds from a hard-fought leadership race to patch up. The high-profile defections of former ministers Dwight Duncan (Finance), Chris Bentley (Energy) and Rick Bartolucci (Northern Development and Mines) were not totally unexpected. All supported Pupatello for leader.
Speaking of Pupatello, it seems some in the party can't get over the fact that she's not the one calling the shots. On that one the animosities run deep: Pupatello operative Warren Kinsella chided Wynne's folks in a particularly impolitic musing on his website for letting members of McGuinty's team "slip away," saying Wynne & Co. will "regret it."
During Wynne's swearing-in ceremony, aboriginal singers performed the Wolf Song in her honour.
The choice was thick with symbolism. Wolves run in packs and are fierce killers. But in native lore they're also revered for their ability to create new relationships and find fresh water and for their powers of renewal. Time for Wynne to get her wolf on.