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politics

The Race for Premier: Frontrunners Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello Address the Liberal Party Convention

A study in contrasts.

ontario-liberal-convention-2013

Ontario Liberals are choosing a new leader for their party, and a new premier for us all, at their leadership convention today. Each candidate had one last chance to woo convention delegates this morning during a final round of speeches and the two frontrunners, Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne, certainly presented them with a study in contrasts.

Because this is a leadership race, internal to the party, rather than a province-wide campaign, the candidates don’t need to spend as much time as they otherwise might defining themselves: they can assume a certain familiarity and understanding, and a shared base of values that unite the party as a whole.

Wynne’s speech was short on policy specifics, but she did take some time to sketch a definition of the party, and of how she would approach government. For her the central idea is that “being tough doesn’t have anything to do necessarily with being mean.” This marks both the direction she wants to take in government (“fiscal responsibility with social justice linked”) and the balance she thinks the party needs to strike on the tricky matter of maintaining a minority government.

Kathleen Wynne with supporters, shortly after giving her speech at the convention.

Kathleen Wynne with supporters, shortly after giving her speech at the convention.

It isn’t much—just the vaguest of descriptions—but it is actually more detail than Pupatello offered in her own speech. Pupatello focused far more on the tactics of governing, and of retaining power, spending a fair bit of time in her speech raising concerns about the extremes represented by the NDP and the Tories. “I don’t believe Ontarians want to go back to the ’90s, when we were whipsawed” from one party to the other, she said—and then immediately added that of course she’d work with those parties when needed and that she didn’t want an election anytime soon. Her focus was the position of the party and its electoral prospects, while Wynne’s was giving a (vaseline-lensed) picture of what being Liberal means.

Of the two, Pupatello is the more polished speaker, with a more traditional oratorical style. She is the establishment candidate not just in fact but in persona. Her performance today was surprisingly weak, however, and the overall effect was that she was not so much paradigmatically Liberal, ready to assume the mantle, as stereotypically so, embodying many of the party’s most caricatured traits.

Sandra Pupatello addresses the convention.

Sandra Pupatello addresses the convention.

Pupatello described herself as “a leader who can bring a campaign to life and the opposition to its knees.” She pointed her finger enthusiastically, and often. She condemned the dogmatism of the other parties. And for delegates who are worried about the position of the Liberals in Ontario, who fear the party is on the wane, that call to arms may prove very appealing. She tacked more to the right on economic issues, and for some that too will be appealing. But at many points Pupatello came dangerously close to embodying the complaints lobbed most often by Liberal critics: that it’s a party that doesn’t stand for much of anything except winning, with no clear animating principles and a tendency to rely on undefined centrism to convince voters they’re less scary than the alternatives.

Wynne is the more homespun candidate, but the more precisely realized one. There are many who think she leans too far to the left or is too prone to compromise to be able to lead the party effectively in the next election, who view her conciliatory tendencies with suspicion. She is the gentler of the two, and in politics that’s not often viewed as a virtue. But for better or worse, Wynne showed more of herself in her speech than Pupatello did in hers, and did a better job conveying not just that she wants to be leader, but how that’s connected to her core concerns as a person. At the end of their speeches it was clear Pupatello wants the job too, but we understood less about why. For delegates who are choosing not just a party leader and premier, but a standard bearer charged with revitalizing the party, it’s not yet clear whether that will be important.

The conventional wisdom coming into this weekend was that the odds favoured Pupatello, and also that this morning’s speeches wouldn’t matter much. That may well prove true in the end. But given Wynne’s strong performance and Pupatello’s comparatively flat one, it’s looking a little less certain.

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