TORONTO — Premier Kathleen Wynne fired up her troops Saturday at the Ontario Liberal annual general meeting — the last party gathering before the spring election — by urging them not to focus on their uncertain opponent, but on the principles they’re fighting for.
In an impassioned speech containing more than two dozen instances of the word “fighting,” Wynne took a clear shot at the opposing Progressive Conservatives, who find themselves in turmoil after the sudden resignation of their former leader Patrick Brown in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.
Brown vehemently denies the accusations — which were made in a CTV News report and haven’t been independently verified by The Canadian Press — but his departure has led to party infighting and a rushed leadership contest to be decided by March 10.
Wynne told supporters it doesn’t matter who the Tories pick, the Liberal government’s goals remain the same.
“There are always going to be people who see things differently,” she said. “People who criticize our plan. Some do it in the newspapers. Some do it on Twitter. Some do it behind a podium in their mother’s basement.”
The last reference was a dig at PC leadership candidate and former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, who announced he would seek the Tories’ top job at a press conference held in his mother’s basement earlier this week.
“It’s not about who we’re fighting against,” Wynne said. “It’s about who we’re fighting for.”
Wynne wasted no time in addressing the tide of sexual misconduct allegations rocking Canadian politics in the opening minutes of her speech.
She did not specifically mention Brown’s resignation, but alluded to the larger controversy.
“I’m heartbroken that in 2018, we as a society are still confronted by this vile and unacceptable behaviour that is dominating our headlines right now,” Wynne said. “You already know that as a party, we have introduced a new code of conduct on harassment. We want to lead the way in establishing safe workplaces.”
Wynne also touted some of the party’s policy achievements — raising the minimum wage, expanding drug coverage for people under the age of 25 and free post-secondary tuition for students from low-income families.
She emphasized the contrast between her party, the PCs and the New Democrats, while also touching on key themes of fairness and opportunity that she has stressed for months.
“We are fighting for you, we will keep fighting for you,” she said. “We will never stop fighting for you.”
Wynne mentioned the difficult road to re-election ahead by referencing her own past electoral record. Down in the polls for over a year and with approval ratings that hover in the mid-teens, she asked party volunteers to work hard.
“I lost my first election in 1994 by 72 votes,” Wynne said. “Just a few more hours of canvassing or getting out the vote could have changed that result. And because every single vote counts, that means every single visit on every single doorstep counts.”
In a press conference after her speech, Wynne said to her knowledge there are no candidates running for her party who have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past.
“The vetting process is very thorough,” she said. “We’ve gone through the vetting process, but if there were something that came up we’d have to deal with it. I’m just being realistic.”
Wynne said the party is not “troubled by” the loss of any advance plans they had to attack former PC leader Patrick Brown.
“What happened to Patrick Brown, what is happening to the (PCs) right now, is their focus,” she said. “Our focus is on our plan.”
Michael Balagus, NDP campaign director, said the Liberal government has had 15 years to fight for the people and has failed.
“There’s a reason people are cynical in Ontario and there are reasons why people are particularly cynical about this government,” he said. “I think that’s a giant exclamation mark.”
Progressive Conservative legislator Lisa MacLeod said the Liberals are not fighting for the right people in Ontario.
“Wynne said that the upcoming election is about who she is fighting for, and I know exactly who she is and has been fighting for,” she said in a statement. “She is fighting for millionaire hydro executives, corporate donors, and Liberal insiders.”
Ontario’s general election is June 7.
Shawn Jeffords and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press