By Christopher Reynolds and David Hains
Kathleen Wynne has won her seat, but lost the kingdom.
After more than five years as premier and 15 in the house as MPP, Wynne stepped down from atop the Liberal party Thursday at about 10:30 p.m.
"I am resigning as the leader of the Ontario Liberal party," she told a couple hundred supporters at York Mills Gallery in Toronto, her voice breaking. "There is another generation, and I am passing the torch to that generation."
Nudging past her Progressive Conservative opponent in Don Valley West by fewer than 200 votes out of nearly 46,000 cast, Wynne barely managed to retain her seat, beating back the political ghost of former Liberal premier David Peterson, who lost in his own riding during the orange wave of 1990.
Her party, however, lost official party status, falling one short of the eight seats required to achieve it. Party recognition confers speaking privileges in the house and financial resources to retain caucus service staff.
It is the worst election result in Ontario Liberal history, with about 19.5 per cent of the popular vote according to unofficial results. The previous low was 21.8 per cent in 1923, back when the party leader was Wellington Hay, and the Grits won 27 seats.
Nearly every cabinet minister was kicked out of office Thursday.
"I'm going to cry," Wynne murmured onstage, before quickly composing herself and explaining that she has asked party president Brian Johns to set in motion the process to choose an interim leader. She has given no indication she will step down as an MPP, though the decision to do so would be less tormented than if her party had won eight seats, the loss of one of which would revoke party status.
In a sense, she's been here before. Wynne launched her political career with a failure: In 1994, she lost an election for school trustee in the Toronto ward of York South-Weston. After cofounding a grassroots group with former mayor John Sewell to stop then-premier Mike Harris's 1999 amalgamation of the city of Toronto with Metropolitan Toronto, she made an unsuccessful bid for the Liberal nomination in Toronto–St. Paul's. Not until 2000 did she land a spot in elected office, securing enough votes to become a public school trustee.
"I look at every election I have been in, and I always am prepared to lose. And I did lose my first election, to be school trustee – not that that was as big as running to be premier for the second time, but it was pretty devastating," Wynne told QP Briefing three weeks ago, when the uphill tilt of the battlefield was already clear. "You know, losing is not fun. You always have to be prepared to lose, and I always am."
She made good on that statement last Saturday, predicting her party's defeat in blunt terms.
"On June 7, voters will elect a new government," Wynne said at an elementary school in Toronto's Don Valley East riding, one of the few GTA battlegrounds that remained red Thursday.
"And I am okay with that," she added, "it is not about me."
On Thursday, Wynne congratulated PC Leader Doug Ford on a resounding majority of 76 seats. "I trust that the rancour and the polarization of an election campaign can give way to the necessary civility of well-run government," she said.
It is a humbling political moment for a party that has governed for the past 15 years, and for 20 of the past 33 years.
Tim Murphy, Liberal campaign co-chair, said before the results began to roll in that it was unusual for anyone who succeeds a long-serving premier, as Wynne did in January 2013, to win their first election. “And then, frankly, for anyone to win a second time like that is almost unheard or, certainly in Canada, going back any recent 25-, 30-year year period.
“Fifteen years of governing is an amazing period of time and not very common these days…but you accumulate some barnacles on the ship of state…and I think after a while…there’s an appetite for change, and that was a difficult hill to climb," Murphy said.
Beyond the parallels to 1923, the party's previous low in seats came in 1951, when PC leader Leslie Frost bested Liberal leader Walter Thomson. The eight seats the Grits won were still enough to form the official opposition, as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) won just two seats.
The Liberal decline in 1943 was in some ways more significant. They had formed government for the previous nine years, but the final two years of Mitchell Hepburn reign were tumultuous, with plenty of party-infighting and a lack of public support.
New leader Harry Nixon led the Liberals into the election, but voters weren't swayed, and the Grits fell to 15 seats from 63. It also meant they had third party status, as the CCF won a big breakthrough, and formed the opposition with just four fewer seats than the PCs of the day.
It would take a long time for the Liberals to recover. They wouldn't win more than 15 seats for four more elections, and they wouldn't win more than 63 until 44 years later, when they won a majority in 1987.
Liberal supporters will doubtlessly hope the path out of the wilderness is a bit faster this time.
“We won’t get there with anger, we won’t get there with despair," Wynne told supporters Thursday at Liberal ground zero, the York Mills Gallery, which sits across the street from her riding's eastern edge. "So although I’ve lost this election tonight, I have not in any way lost my passion for continuing this work.”
In 2003, Wynne became the Grit nominee in Don Valley West – although she wouldn't move there for years – and rode the red wave that prompted a Liberal landslide under Dalton McGuinty.
She rose quickly, becoming parliamentary assistant to the postsecondary and education ministers in quick succession before ascending to education minister in 2006, the province's first openly lesbian cabinet minister at 53.
She was re-elected in Don Valley West in 2007 after what many saw as an unwinnable fight against then-PC leader John Tory. "If I go back to 2007, when John Tory ran against me, Jane and I had a plan B, because really, nobody expected me to beat the leader, that just didn't happen," she told QP Briefing last month, referring to her spouse, Jane Rounthwaite. "So, I would say, it feels a lot like it has felt before."
Wynne stewarded three hefty portfolios between 2010 and 2012: transportation, housing, and aboriginal affairs, as it was then called. After McGuinty resigned, she beat out front-runner Sandra Pupatello for the leadership in January 2013. She would overcome the sins of her predecessor – including controversy around the eHealth and Ornge air ambulance service scandals and the $1.1-billion cost of cancelling two gas plants in 2010 and 2011 – to return the Liberals to majority government in 2014.
It's been a tough go since then, with the cash-for-access scandal and criticism over soaring hydro rates mounting atop overflowing hospital wards and growing wait lists for long-term care.
Her government cut bills by 25 per cent on average last year under the Fair Hydro Plan, but caught constant flak for the partial privatization of Hydro One. The hydro plan, which includes an elaborate borrowing scheme that artificially lowers prices in the short term at long-term expense, has faced sharp criticism from the auditor general and the press for its high costs and apparent political motivation.
Over the past 14 months, the five-year leader has expanded rent control and OSAP grants, introduced universal pharmacare for people under 25 and hiked the minimum-wage hike to $14, aiming to lend credibility to her claim to be the "change" candidate, one who cuts a "compassionate, "practical" swath between the scissor-happy right and the union-beholden left.
"Being an elected politician is about being a change agent. That's why government exists. Government doesn't exist to protect the status quo; government exists to change the things that need changing," Wynne told QP Briefing in an interview Saturday, hours after she'd conceded the race.
But Wynne's personal popularity tanked long ago, languishing below other Canadian premiers for most of the past two years, polls showed.
-with files from Jessica Smith Cross