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Making the tough calls: Jason Kenney and Kathleen Wynne on the dying art of political compromise

Podcast & Video

The following is the latest installment of The Hub’s new series The Business of Government, hosted by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Amanda Lang about how government works and, more importantly, why it sometimes doesn’t work. In this five-part series, Lang conducts in-depth interviews with experts and former policymakers and puts it all in perspective for the average Canadian.

This episode’s featured guests are former Premiers Jason Kenney and Kathleen Wynne. They discuss their experiences in government, including the policymaking process, the strengths and weaknesses of state capacity in Canada, and making politically unpopular decisions.

Read Amanda’s accompanying column on this topic here.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, and YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

AMANDA LANG: Welcome to Episode Five, “Making the Tough Calls.” When it comes to effective government, it’s pretty obvious which people have ownership of the good and the bad. Our elected officials are held to account for how government functions. That can be hard when the issues are beyond their immediate control, think of things like a properly working bureaucracy or department. But it’s even harder when those politicians have to take action on things that they know will be politically unpopular. So we wanted to talk to some politicians who know a little bit about that. Jason Kenney was a federal politician and a Cabinet Minister in Stephen Harper’s governments, winning re-election in 2015 even as his Prime Minister’s government lost the election. He ran for the leadership of his party in Alberta and, within a couple of years, was Premier of Alberta, a post he relinquished voluntarily in 2021 as pandemic policies created divisions inside his party. Let me start by saying thanks so much for being here with us today.

JASON KENNEY: Great to be here, Amanda. Thank you.

AMANDA LANG: I guess the, maybe, obvious place to start is, do you think government functions well? It’s arguably the most important service in the country that touches everybody every day in different ways. Are we doing a good job?

JASON KENNEY: Well, I’ll give you the political answer and say it depends. Look, if you travel through the developing world and much of the rest of the world and you come to Canada, you’re going to say government works very well here. And that’s one of the reasons so many people try to immigrate to our country. On the other hand, I think by our own Canadian standards, government is not working well. In recent years, this is not a partisan point, but I’m not the first to comment on growing questions about state capacity. And one obvious thing that pops into mind was the huge problem with limited healthcare capacity that emerged during COVID. The huge waitlist that preceded COVID and the even larger ones that have followed COVID. In a country that’s in the top quartile of the developed world in healthcare spending and yet we’re in the bottom quartile in terms of outcomes: diagnostic and treatment wait times, doctors and nurses per capita, and all sorts of other outcomes.

So that’s just one, I think, glaring example in the largest area of public spending about how our system is not working well. But I think more broadly, just look at the basic administrative functions of government these days. Just getting the basic boring prosaic stuff done, wait queues for the immigration department. And I have some obvious experience in that. I was Immigration Minister for five years. The situation has deteriorated massively in recent years, with wait times for passport processing. So here in Alberta, people are waiting, sometimes for over a year, for land titles to be processed by the provincial government. So I know every government in Canada is facing these huge and growing inventories. It’s not because, by the way, of austerity; we’re pretty much at or close to the historic peak in public spending in this country. So I think there are some growing and deep issues about state capacity and the efficiency of the modern state in Canada.

AMANDA LANG: So in some ways, it’s hard to compare healthcare to almost anything else. And I only say that, but maybe this is a good entry point to the structural issues we’ve created. Because, of course, healthcare is not—you can’t say that’s the federal government’s issue. You can’t even say it’s the provincial government’s issue because, of course, we’ve created a system where it’s a network of different providers, and each one has its own unique problems and bottlenecks. I guess I want to level up and then say, whether it’s healthcare or immigration, or any of the other functions that don’t seem to work the way we wish they did, are we nimble enough about—can we see the problems? I mean, as you say, a backlog of a million human beings waiting to learn their fate in Canada on the immigration side, not good. Are we nimble enough to figure out how to solve them? I guess, which does go to government service.

JASON KENNEY: Absolutely not. And I think there’s a whole lot of reasons for that. But part of this is, I think, the natural result of when you have a state monopoly and you lack the motive force of innovation, which is competition. So when you carve out state monopolies in various areas and you don’t have the pressure of competition, you often end up with sclerotic systems that are rationed where the resources are rationed, which means central planning and central planners will never have adequate information to prepare well for the future. But that’s, I think, a pretty clear lesson of political economy in the 20th century. So in terms of jurisdiction, federal, provincial, I’m not sure I agree with you that that is a point of much confusion. The federal role is a funding role. I mean, obviously, the feds do deliver healthcare or are more responsible for direct primary healthcare for First Nations, the military, and federal prisons. But that apart, provinces are responsible. It’s very clear under the Constitution, but I do think in some cases we have this blurring of lines. The federal government, I think largely for political reasons, always wants to be seen to be playing a larger role in a whole range of areas and use its, and this is going back to the 1960s, uses its fiscal power to buy its way into provincial jurisdiction, which does sometimes confuse things about where ultimate responsibility lies.

I’ll give you one example. Outside of Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland, the province’s contract with the federal government for the RCMP to act as their provincial police force under the authority of their solicitor general. And that’s what we do here in Alberta. So you’ve got this strange situation where the police notionally are reporting up to the provincial solicitor general, but operationally they’re reporting to RCMP in Ottawa. And this often creates service gaps. It means the RCMP has an interest in moving people around the country. So you get somebody who’s come out of our Regina Depot, they’re from New Brunswick, they’re serving in Wetaskiwin for two or three years, and then they’re assigned to Whitehorse or something. So you have a revolving door, which works against community policing, and you often have staffing gaps. And local people don’t know who to complain to. Do they call their MLA, their provincial Minister? Do they talk to their MP to go to the federal Minister of Public Safety? So I do think sometimes that, in principle, a federation should lead to better policy outcomes, better operational outcomes because, at its best, a federation is a series of provincial policy laboratories that actually can innovate competing for people, investment, tax revenue, et cetera. But practically, it often doesn’t work that way, especially when the feds get cross-threaded with provincial responsibility.

AMANDA LANG: Fair enough. So jurisdictional issues, I guess, created an overlay of problems inside a government. And I want to focus on the provincial government. You’re intimately aware of it. And obviously, you know both levels. So it’s an interesting perspective that you can bring to us. What are the bottlenecks to better service, if you will? Or does it function pretty well in the sense that, as a Premier, you can say, “This is a vision, and this is my speech from the throne,” and you can get it done? Or are there a series of things that get in your way?

JASON KENNEY: Yes, you can get it done, but there’s always going to be challenges and obstacles in moving the policy ball down the field in a big, modern, complex democracy. My own experience was, as both a very activist Minister in Ottawa— I mean, anybody will tell you I was—well, I think one academic expert in immigration policy said that before I was Minister of Immigration, he could take a sabbatical for a year and come back and nothing would’ve changed. But when I was Minister, every morning when he went to read the paper with his coffee, there was a new policy. So I was a very activist Minister and a very activist Premier. And I found that, broadly speaking, the public service, both federally and provincially, was very responsive to clear direction. It does, however, require a relationship of trust where the elected people have to be really transparent with, at the very least, senior public servants about what it is they’re trying to achieve and why, what the motives are. I think perhaps some of the best advice I ever got in government, the administration of government, was from my wisened first and now former Deputy Minister Dick Fadden. Who, when I was at immigration, went on to become DM to Defence National Security Advisor, Head of CSIS. So, really brilliant man. And he said to me, “Minister, the most important advice I can impart is to please be clear and transparent with us about why it is you’re trying to achieve something. Because if we can understand what the motive is, we can deliver better.”

And then their job, in principle, is to provide fearless advice and loyal implementation. The fearless advice part may mean coming back and saying, “Here are the unintended consequences of this policy you may not have considered. Here’s some negative things that may happen, some knock-on effects,” or “This is not practical for these reasons,” or “Treasury board and finance, likely, will not give you this money.” Or more typically, what they do is present you with three options. It is called the Goldilocks trick. Their preferred option will usually be the—there’ll be like a really minimal option, a super aggressive and perhaps reckless one. And then, the Goldilocks: the ‘just right’ option. So they come back with that policy advice and then there’s often a bit of a tango back and forth as you’re the elected person trying to achieve, perhaps, a bold election commitment or solve a serious problem. And very often, the elected person in my seat would push, but push respectfully, right?

Push to really see what are the outer limits of what is operationally possible or legally possible because often I think government lawyers have a tendency towards risk aversion. So the job of the political person, I think, is to probe. “What are the outer limits of what is practical in achieving policy goals?” And then the bureaucracy’s job is to listen to that and, where possible, get to ‘yes’. And I generally found that that was the case. Very rarely in my nine years as a federal Minister, and my four years as a provincial Premier, did I find the bureaucracy clearly, or in bad faith, trying to block. Now, sometimes what they’ll do if they really don’t like something, their best friend will be ‘delay’. “Let’s just wait out this Minister or this government and see if things change. And maybe circumstances will change as well.” So I think that would be the typical strategy of a public service when it really doesn’t want to do something is just endless delay. But generally, I had a really good relationship and was able to do a lot of pretty ambitious things in fairly short order.

AMANDA LANG: Which, I guess, is the evidence that it’s possible. Our system of government does allow majority governments to get stuff done, and even effective minority governments to get a lot done. One of your colleagues described it as ’17 layers of bureaucracy’ in terms of being a minister and trying to get something passed. You talk about the risk aversion. There are all kinds of good reasons why—there are multiple departments you just referred to some of them, right? It’s not just your own cabinet decision that has to be made. There’s a bunch of other factors at play, but is there too much? Could we streamline some of this? And when it’s really urgent, have you been able to do that? Just to say, “Skip all the red tape; we’re actually doing X, Y, or Z?”

JASON KENNEY: Sometimes, yes, I was able to do that. Speaking of red tape, people in the private sector and myself when I was in politics would often complain about the huge red tape burden on the private sector, on civil society. But there is huge internal red tape, an enormous process. And this is thicker in Ottawa than it is in the Provinces because, with a few exceptions like Defence, Immigration, and Indigenous services, Ottawa is not really a service delivery government; it is a funding and policy government. I mean, what does the Department of Health deliver in Ottawa really, where the Provinces are actually running hospitals and responsible for all of the operations every single day? And so consequently, there’s this constant tendency for Ottawa to have all of these processes, procedures, and for the sake of it, and then you layer onto it, policies like bilingualism; everything needs to get translated even if people are not—I’ll give you one example that this is a pretty startling one. I was trying to urgently remove a former Nazi war criminal who had lied his way into the country after the Second World War. And he had been gaming the system. I guess you could say fairly, using every legal avenue at his disposal, appeal upon appeal upon appeal to stay in the country and avoid the revocation of citizenship for 30 years. And I was really losing patience because I thought this guy needed to face justice while he was still alive. And finally, one of the applications got delayed by three years because all of his pleadings had to be translated into French. And I said, “Well, who’s actually going to read that?” And the answer was, “Nobody. But it’s a legal requirement.”

So I’m obviously for broadly the idea of a bilingual national government. But my point is there’s often a lack of the application of common sense which just kind of is layered upon itself. Provincial governments tend to be much more nimble because they got to be; they’ve actually got to deliver the services and face the music if they don’t efficiently. But I would say, yeah, that often, especially in Ottawa, you just get redundant layers of bureaucracy. The brilliant Canadian professor at the University of New Brunswick, Donald Savoie, wrote a book about this called Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? where he says in the town he grew up in, every school had a music teacher, and that was no longer the case now. He said, “Why is this?” But he went and looked at all of the profusion of new agencies and ‘quangos,’ quasi-non-government organizations, and procedures that eat up public resources that deny those resources from the front-line services. So I do think that is a real problem. It’s not just my anecdotal observation. I think he and others have demonstrated that.

AMANDA LANG: I want to talk a little bit about where politics does influence. And I think it’s always important when we talk about government and we think about government, not to oversimplify how hard things are. It’s a big, complex machinery at the federal and the provincial level, doing big, complex things full of people that I think for the most part, are well-intentioned. When you are Premier, as you were in a time of great stress as you were in the pandemic, and issues come up that are polarizing as they did, I’m curious about your take on if there’s been a shift, if it’s harder to do hard things now? I guess, to build consensus to find your way through because these—and maybe those crises happen so infrequently that we won’t lie awake at night and worry about it or maybe we should and say, “What’s happened to us that we can’t actually find consensus in the middle of hard things and let our politicians make tough choices?”

JASON KENNEY: Yeah. I think the answer broadly is yes; there’s greater polarization on social media. I think it has obviously helped to amplify that. It’s harder to communicate. I mean, look, COVID was unique in pretty much every respect, okay? So I don’t think we can draw a lot of broader lessons about our political system or system of government from, hopefully, the aberration of COVID. But it certainly highlighted. It magnified the growing polarization. And I found it, for example, in the COVID context, hard to communicate. And I think I’ve been credited through my 25 years in elected life, 30 years in public life for being a pretty good communicator, a fairly persuasive, but I found it almost impossible to persuade or even speak to some segments of the population in COVID. I know this is a non-partisan series, but I’ll break this down into more political terms, which is to say there are large segments of the population that have broadly come to distrust mainstream legacy media outlets. And I think mainstream legacy media have some responsibility for this. And so what’s happened is you’ve had the rise of alternative media, both on the Left and the Right. And often, their business model is the monetization of anger. So I found during COVID that if I stood up at a news conference and said, “Folks, we’re going to have to bring in some really difficult and painful restrictions because we’re running out of hospital beds and we need to make sure that if you get into a car accident or if loved one has a heart attack, that there’s a bed for them. So we’re going to have to slow a viral spread in order to preserve emergency critical healthcare capacity.”

AMANDA LANG: Seems reasonable.

JASON KENNEY: So if I went out and said that, a lot of people would hear it; they may not like it, but they would understand at least what the motive was and it was necessary. We might quibble about the policy, might quibble about the healthcare system, but they would understand what we were trying to do and why. But I found in COVID, there was a whole segment of the population that had opted out of mainstream institutional legacy media, who were only, in one case, listening to alt-Right media, and who just kept seeing stories about nurses doing TikTok dances in empty hospitals. And that COVID was fake or massively exaggerated. And so those folks never heard what I had to say. And so they thought that these restrictions were done completely arbitrarily or for malicious reasons. So that’s an extreme example, but it’s one that certainly worries me.

AMANDA LANG: When you think about effective governing, obviously in a democracy, the sharing of information, you reach consensus only or compromise through sharing of information, to me, whether it’s the vaccine mandates or the response of the convoy in Ottawa. And obviously, I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole on that, but that also, I think, illustrated that there’s some strong sentiment on part of the spectrum about what was happening. If you’d asked me, “Who’s a good politician to speak to this population?” I would’ve said, “Jason Kenny. He is not just a conservative; he is a conservative’s conservative. He’s fairly—” And yet, you couldn’t reach them, which makes, do we need to despair about that?

JASON KENNEY: Look, I was one of the founders of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation 30 years ago, leading the charge on fiscal conservatism when it wasn’t popular. On just about any issue you can name, I was a principal conservative, often at the front of the parade, for 30 years: foreign policy, security policy, moral cultural issues, fiscal, economic, you name it. And then suddenly I found myself in COVID being regarded as a globalist shill for the World Economic Forum, and somebody who was a craven, power-hungry dictator, arbitrarily violating people’s fundamental freedoms. And even though I was so obviously and clearly through COVID, struggling to avoid restrictions wherever possible and faced massive criticism from my opposition, from many in the media and many in the commentariat. So I just found it was bizarre that here we were in Alberta, clearly trying to maintain the most open, least restrictive COVID policy. And yet there was something like 20 percent of the population who thought I was being cavalier about endless lockdowns. So we never really had—I mean, arguably, we never really had lockdowns in Alberta; we had to close the schools for operational reasons a couple of times briefly after the spring of 2020. But yeah, you’re pointing to something that I found just astonishing that all of the credibility I thought I had built up over 25 or 30 years as a defender of limited government, of powerful civil society, of personal freedoms, none of that seemed to matter, not a whit, to people. And I guess I can understand it because people were angry, they were frustrated, and they wanted somebody to blame.

AMANDA LANG: Can we hope and assume that that was tied to the, as you say, we hope the anomaly that was a pandemic with all of the heightened fear and risk and everything that brought deep emotion to that, or is this a new era?

JASON KENNEY: I do think there is a small sliver of the population, and it’s a little larger in Alberta than the rest of Canada. That just seems incapable so far getting past the frenzy of COVID anger on both sides, right?


JASON KENNEY: At both ends of the spectrum. And that worries me. And my quick take on this is when I helped to start the Canadian Taxpayers Federation 30 years ago, we’d go door to door to sell memberships. Every now and then, we come across some crazy old kook who was carrying on about an anti-Semitic banking conspiracy. But I’ve reflected on this. Those guys, if they wrote a letter to the editor, were not bad. It wouldn’t get published anywhere. They’d get cut off the talk shows if they called in. Unless they had a Gestetner machine in their basement and they could run off a couple of hundred toxic newsletters with cartoons of hook nose, Jewish caricatures, they couldn’t be published. Social media changed that at the turn of the century. And then people with those kinds of distorted views could start to self-publish, find each other, develop virtual communities and silos of information. Then I talked about this distrust of mainstream institutional or legacy media that’s developed, the development of alt-Right media. And I think there’s an alt-Left media as well that is also capable of monetizing anger; then you end up with President Trump, the most powerful person in the world, validating the anger, and then you end up with COVID. And if you’re stewing in that place of anger and alienation, COVID actually does look like a conspiracy of sorts, right? So unfortunately, I think we now have a situation where there is a small but not completely insignificant share of the population who can’t let it go. And that worries me in terms of the future of certainly the conservative movement in which I’ve spent 30 years but also our political culture more broadly.

AMANDA LANG: Does that, therefore, imply, though, that it will bleed into other subjects and areas? In other words, is it harder to govern from here on out? Have we created a polarized community that never comes back together?

JASON KENNEY: Look, we’re a democracy. There’s always going to be a range of views, and there’s always going to be some extreme views. The job of political leaders wherever possible is to try to find, to build broad coalitions of common interests and values without being steered or controlled by the fringe and their coalitions. And I think that’s possible. It requires great deafness. It was, in my case, I think extraordinarily difficult in the COVID context. I think it’s possible, but I do think that the kind of segmentation driven by social media is, there’s no solution to that; it’s just a social reality. And by the way, okay, I’ve spoken a lot critically about the alt-Right on this, but I’ve got to say, in Canada, the increasingly aggressive and irrational woke Left is not exactly helping when it comes to social cohesion and civil discourse. Where essentially their position is that Canada is an illegitimate, genocidal settler state. And I mean, we’re here in Calgary, they just cancelled fireworks on Canada Day because they imagined somebody might take offence. Cancelling our history, ridiculing our national symbol, and the institutions that made this country the envy of the world—I think that’s another end of the polarization, which is deeply disruptive as well. I’m sorry, you didn’t want me to get political, but I can’t comment on these things without the actual context, I think.

AMANDA LANG: No. And I think it’s an important point to remember that, to my mind, the problem isn’t which end of the spectrum somebody lands on; it’s that they won’t listen to the other end. It’s that there’s no budging from a position and no openness to other ideas. You did go through the ringer; I think there’s no two ways around that. Unfairly, I think, as you say, in the context of who you were and what you were representing. I want to ask you whether you think government, the institution, does it work? And I guess maybe the best way to ask it is, are you through with it, or is there politics in your future? I mean, I always joke that you’re not retired, you’re a ‘recovering politician’; it’s hard to leave it behind.

JASON KENNEY: That’s a good expression. Look, I did 25 years of public service. I think I paid my dues. I love the privilege and opportunity of serving and making important decisions, and I hope in many ways, making life a little better for people. So I don’t have any thoughts about going back. I’m enjoying learning a little bit of what something more like normalcy is—the odd free weekend and free evening of personal privacy. And I’m enjoying the challenges in business as I get into various kinds of business in the private sector. So I’m having a blast, and I have no intention of going back. I guess you never say never, but for me, 25 years, hasta.

AMANDA LANG: All right, well, we don’t begrudge you any sanity or privacy. But before I let you go, I do want to ask if there was a thing you could change. I know there’s no silver bullet to this, but when you think about how government works, is there something you would say, “If we just did this, it would be better?” Is there something that simple that we should be looking to?

JASON KENNEY: Yeah. Look, I guess I’ll go back to where I started, which was the example of healthcare. It is a peculiar example of how on many issues there is, amongst the political and opinion elites in this country, a parochial small-mindedness where our politics has just become this sort of recitation, this kind of cliches as opposed to an openness to innovation on healthcare. I think everybody in Canada understands that the status quo is not working and that massive additional spending is not going to solve deeper structural issues that exist here—not a partisan issue. British Columbia has just, as they say, as many problems with wait times and their system under an NDP government as Alberta does under Conservative governments, not a partisan issue. I don’t think it’s largely a fiscal issue.

But on that, the debate, such as it’s been for the better part of three or four decades, has consisted of mindless name-calling. If anybody proposes alternative ways of structuring the system while maintaining even universality, they’re accused of wanting the worst of a U.S. two-tier style system. Where we have, throughout the developed world, two or three dozen different models of universal insurance and coverage, but different ways of delivering and paying, and different ranges of choices. And so that would be an example to me of how we allow ourselves—in Quebec, they have a really good expression, ‘la pose’: unique, single-minded thinking, or monolithic thinking. And sometimes we Canadians, I think, fall into that trap of monolithic thinking. We need to get out of it; we need to be more innovative and respectful of one another when we debate these things. So that’s what I would urge, which is a willingness to have a more grown-up, mature debate about some of these critical structural issues, a greater boldness to embrace innovation.

Look, I mean, for goodness sakes, the people that built this country, from the First Nations in this inhospitable environment to the generations of pioneers and those who followed in their footsteps, these were tough people who overcame enormous challenges to build one of the most prosperous countries in the world, in one of the most inhospitable climates, spread out against the northern half of an entire continent. These are bold, tough, innovative people. I think we need to rediscover a bit of that frontier spirit and apply it in innovative ways to solving chronic policy problems.

AMANDA LANG: I’d like a call to action that has real optimism in it, and we’ll leave it on that note because it’s a great one to end on. Thank you so much for your time.

JASON KENNEY: Appreciate it. Thanks so much, Amanda.

AMANDA LANG: Kathleen Wynne was a member of Ontario’s legislature for 20 years and served as Ontario’s first woman and first openly gay Premier. While her tenure as Premier could be remembered for a lot of things—cap and trade pricing of carbon, privatizing Hydro One, increasing the province’s minimum wage—it will also be remembered as one that was dogged by the so-called ‘gas plant scandal.’ An issue she inherited from her predecessor after the construction of two gas-fired power plants was stopped in the face of fierce political local opposition. Kathleen Wynne joins us now. Thank you so much for your time today.

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks, Amanda. Thanks for asking me.

AMANDA LANG: Where I want to start is really your reflection on whether it is acknowledged how difficult it is to govern. And what I mean by that is there tends to be a simplification of what’s happening and the outcomes and decisions that are made. Is it frustrating when it’s—we all know it’s complex and making these decisions are hard. How does that simplification hit when you’re the one making the tough calls?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Well, I think, Amanda, there’s a feeling or, I don’t know, a consensus among a lot of people that once a government is in office and once there’s a leader in place, then whatever they want to do, they can just do. And so if I can get the ear of the Premier or the Minister and I can make my case, then instantly something should happen. And I think that was very frustrating for me. From the time I was elected, really as a school trustee, up through MPP Minister and Premier, things do not happen instantly. Sometimes there’s a confluence of events, and we’ve seen it through COVID, where there’s an emergency and things have to happen quickly or flooding, or when there’s a real problem, then things have to move quickly. And I think people take from that, “Well, if you could move quickly, then why can’t you move quickly on everything else?” So I think that for me was the most frustrating because there’s so many things you want to do. That’s the other thing. There are so many things that you have to make a priority, and it’s very hard. Well, you can’t do everything. You just can’t do everything.

AMANDA LANG: I mean, it’s funny. It’s a bit like when you’re flying somewhere and the pilot says, “We’re going to make up the time in the air and get you there faster.” And we think, “Why don’t we always do that? Why would you ever go the slow way?” But to your point, something does get lost when we speed up the processes. Is there a legitimate complaint from your point of view that there’s too much friction in the way of governing, in other words, that there are too many T’s to cross and I’s to dot. So whatever it is that stops you from going in, especially as Premier, the most powerful person in the Province, did that stop you from really getting things done?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Well, I have to say, on balance, I don’t believe that. On balance, I believe that the civil service, the people who have been there, there are people in the civil service of bureaucracy in Ontario and likewise in the federal government who’ve been there for many years. And that may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. It’s a good thing because it means that there are subject experts, there are people who really understand how things work. I remember the first time I walked into a cabinet meeting. I wasn’t a Minister; I was an MPP. I was chairing a committee, and I walked in to deliver a report on water. It was in the wake of the Walkerton situation, and we were trying to put in place regulations that would ensure that that never happened again. And I remember walking into the cabinet room and all the Ministers were at the table, but then flanking them on the side were the scientists and the people who had the subject knowledge. And I remember thinking, and this was early on in my time there, “I am so glad these people are here because I really don’t know anything about water science. And I know my colleagues around the table don’t. So thank God there are people who know and have a deep understanding of how this all works.” So, on balance, Amanda, I would say that the checks and balances that are in place are important. But you have to bring the political wisdom and the political smarts into the conversation in order to meet people in your constituency, in your jurisdiction, where they are.

AMANDA LANG: So that is a great example. And obviously, another big issue you handled very early in your tenure as Premier was the ice storm.


AMANDA LANG: Where the path forward is clear. There will be consensus around the concept that everybody deserves safe drinking water; you don’t actually have to deal with the naysayers on that one. You also though, dealt with—

KATHLEEN WYNNE: But let me just give you a little insight into that. The issue on that one was that there were people in apartments without heat, without electricity, and we were worried about them eating. We were worried about them getting food. We were worried about them being able to get down to the main floor if they were in a high-rise. And so we tried to find a way. We worked with the bureaucracy, and we worked with Loblaws actually to put in place cards so that there could be some relief on getting food. It was so difficult. It didn’t go well. We didn’t have time to plan it properly. And I admit that. I said that it didn’t work well, but we had to try something. So in that case, the machinery of government was focused on getting people’s power back and making sure that we gave information to people. We couldn’t do the other piece as well as we should have. So it’s just that that’s a juxtaposition that I will always carry with me.

AMANDA LANG: That being the ice storm, of course. I guess there’s an inevitable part of this process for thoughtful people that will always Monday morning quarterback what you did. And of course, you have the opposition and the media, and the public to help you with that. To what extent is that feedback? I’ll call it that criticism. It is, of course, fair. To what extent do you feel as though what was coming at you was justified as something you could take on board and review yourself with your team? And to what extent was it unkind, unfair, hateful? There’s a range of those things that we know people in public life increasingly face.

KATHLEEN WYNNE: So I think it was a mixture of all those things. I mean, sure, it was fair. I admit that that process didn’t work as well as it should. I actually wrote a little piece for the Star afterwards and said, “I’m always going to want to be that person who tries to do something, even if I fail.” But it was a good lesson for me and listening to people talk about what went wrong. It was good for me to understand. It was very early in my premiership, and it was good for me to understand that the planning that’s necessary to deliver something like that is pretty massive and pretty detailed. So, even though I knew that, it was a good reminder that you have to move judiciously. So I think the feedback on whatever you do as a politician is going to be mixed. I always say to the young people that I’m teaching now, “There is no policy, there is no decision that’s going to have unanimous consent in the public. That’s not going to happen. But when the voices are very agitated and there is a building resentment, then you have to pay attention to that, even if what you are doing, you believe is the right thing to do.”

AMANDA LANG: Were there times that you feel strongly about in retrospect when the wrong thing happened for political reasons? In other words, the right thing was one path and another. I can think of thing, examples I would offer up, but I want to ask you if you have any that you say it shouldn’t have gone that way, but that’s the way the politics pointed it.

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Well, I have a reverse example. I mean, Hydro One I think is the reverse, where—

AMANDA LANG: Yep. I would agree with that.

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Yeah. Where we made a decision based on lots of evidence, Amanda, and lots of research, and lots of good hard work that selling off part of one asset to build a new asset transit was the right thing to do. But the politics of it were dreadful. And there was a confluence of factors including an increase in hydro prices because of all the investments we’d made in a renewed grid the increase in hydro prices wasn’t because of the partial selloff of Hydro One. It was because of all those investments that had been made over the previous decade. But the politics of it were just dreadful for us. And you know what? In the moment, I didn’t even realize how awful the politics were going to be, and that’s on me not to have gotten that. But from a cash liquidity and fiscal perspective, it was the right thing to do because we were reaching our borrowing ceiling and we needed to have some cash. So that’s the reverse of what you’re asking. I’m just trying to think where, and this isn’t because I’m trying to be defensive; I’m just trying to think where the politics might have gotten in the way of the best decision. I’m sure there are small businesses in the Province who would say to you that the decision on minimum wage was a political one and was not rooted in good evidence. I would argue with that, however, because what we found was that there was an increase in jobs and the economy was doing well. But there certainly were many, many voices at that time who were saying that we were only doing that for political reasons. So maybe that’s a good example that was perceived to be what you’re talking about.

AMANDA LANG: Yeah. I think history is on the side of increasing it on that in that case. I guess one that I might ask you about—I’m not sure I can point to it, but you will, of course, always have lived through the gas plant issue and for better or worse. And it’s interesting to think about how that might have happened for you if the folks in charge of it had been the other party. But anyway, we can set aside all of that. I think that’s irrelevant. To me, what’s most interesting about that, I am going to be guilty of oversimplification here because we could spend, of course, an hour just talking about that one issue. But arguably, politics made the wrong thing happen there long before you were premier. In other words, to my view and to the view of some others, a bad choice was made. We needed gas plants to replace—getting out to dirty coal, gas plants were the right thing to do. Some people didn’t like them, and the politics of those people won. And then it turned into this cascading, of course, with a lot of other issues that are very complex. But do you look back at that and say, “If only people had the fortitude to say to the folks of Oakville and Mississauga, we understand your concerns, but the greater goods prevailing and you’re going to have a gas plant in your neighbourhood.”

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Yeah, I mean, the gas plant decision hounded me throughout my premiership as well. So I certainly had to own it as part of the cabinet, and so on. And it’s a strange one because what I really believe is that had we actually been more political earlier. In other words, if we had realized that the location of those gas plants—because gas plants were going to be built, we needed peak electricity power. That was the reality. And so they were going to be built. But if we had made a decision earlier to put them in a different place, which has now happened, there are gas plants being built. Too many, I would argue. I don’t think we need as many gas plants as the current Ford government is building, but that’s another discussion. Who actually would’ve avoided a lot of the anger and angst around that whole issue? So I think our political antenna on that one, actually, Amanda, were down. They weren’t as good as they should have been. We should have said, “Okay, we hear what you’re saying, but here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to find a compromise.” There needed to be a better process. It was a very bad process. And then we waited until into or just before in an election campaign to make the decision. It was just the worst possible timing. So our timing was off, and I think actually the decision was the wrong one in the first place.

AMANDA LANG: Interesting. When we think about it, it did dog all of you, but it certainly as Premier dogged you. How much did you have to change in the course of your leadership in terms of thickness of skin, the ability to disregard some things? Because it does seem as though the tone of some of the debate and the feedback—the polarization, if you will—gets worse, uglier. How did that affect you personally?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Well, I think it’s a slow boil that you go into. You absorb it. I always say to people because I’m asked the thick-skin question a lot. I always say you need thick but porous skin. So you can’t have a suit of armour, because if you’re wearing armour, then you don’t hear what’s going on, and you can’t take in the pain that people are bringing to you, and you have to be able to do that as a leader. You have to be able to hear that. I mean, my advantage was by the time I became Premier, I had been in government for a long time. I had been in four ministries. I had developed a real understanding of how things worked across government. I hadn’t been in that position of ultimate responsibility, though. And that was the different piece for me. And I think what happened there was I had to learn to compartmentalize to a degree that I maybe hadn’t before. I had to read the papers in the morning. I had to listen to the radio, go for my run, and then put the anger and the kind of bile that was coming at me in a box, leave it at home, and go to work and do my job, and look at what I could do as opposed to what I couldn’t do. And when I would stand in front of media in those last couple of years when our numbers were down and my personal popularity was down, media would ask me repeatedly, “What’s it like to be disliked so much?” And everything in me wanted to just say, “Oh, it’s great.” I loved it. But I couldn’t be flip. And it was painful. It was hard, but I always had to look at, “Okay, what can I get done today? What can I actually get done? And I’m not going to waste this platform that I have to actually do things that I think are important.” So I think I tended not in my early days as a politician to really compartmentalize. I really believe in bringing your whole self to decision-making, but as things got hotter and more vicious, I did have to put some of that aside.

AMANDA LANG: When it comes to getting things done, which of course has to go on through all of this, as Premier and Cabinet Minister, working closely with other levels of government. So a good lens, not just on how well provincial government functions but how those relationships work—are they working as they should? Did you come away with that thinking that everything’s fine or that there are things we could improve about how the three levels work together?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: I think there are always things we can improve. I think the ongoing dialogue among the levels of government is not what it should be. I think that it’s often very transactional. And I often wish that there were more opportunities to actually develop relationships. I found, for example, the Council of the Federation, where all the premiers meet, a very helpful place to be. We would meet in person once a year and then a couple of times throughout the year over the phone. And I found those in-person meetings very, very helpful because you got a sense of the person. And so when I had an opportunity to sit down and talk to John Tory or sit down and talk to Stephen Harper, or Justin Trudeau, those were valuable opportunities. But they’re few and far between, Amanda. And I think that’s a challenge. If I had it all to do again, I think I might more regularly contact those people. I mean, we tended to talk when there was a thing we had to fix or negotiate, and I probably needed to have more regular interactions with them.

AMANDA LANG: Both directions, municipal and federal?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Municipal and federal. Yeah, I would say so. I mean, the thing is, everybody’s very, very busy. And so, to build in a regular phone call with everybody who is an important player at both levels of government would be impossible. And the Ministers have those relationships. That’s really important that Ministers develop those relationships. But I think creating opportunities to come together face-to-face is important. When Stephen Harper was the prime minister and I was first in office, there had not been a first minister’s meeting for years. And that was a problem because the premiers didn’t have a chance to actually develop that kind of connection with the prime minister. I found it very helpful when Justin Trudeau was elected, and we did have a First Minister’s conference. And right off the bat, everybody knew where everybody stood. So that was helpful.

AMANDA LANG: So in terms of when you talk to others, and I know you must, who are interested in the process, who are thinking about becoming engaged, is it something you recommend? I mean, do you actually say, “This is a good life? It’s—”

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Absolutely, absolutely. And in fact, one of the reasons I’m teaching a couple of courses at U of T in the fall and in the winter. And I say that to young people. Of course, there are things I would change. Of course, I would do some things differently. I mean, I’ll be second-guessing things for the rest of my life. But I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. It was just wonderful. And not just in the Premier’s chair, but as an MPP, to be able to help people navigate government and figure out how to help their families, and to be connected to communities in a way that you just can’t in other roles. I mean, I had the opportunity to knock on thousands and thousands of doors and walk up to someone in their home, and immediately have an important conversation about what’s going on in our world, whether they agreed with me or not. That is a huge privilege, and it’s a really important and effective way to understand how our world works. So I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had. I worry actually that young people look at the—they look at social media, they look at the reputation that politicians have. They listen to new politicians who go and knock on doors and say, “I’m not really a politician.” Well, yeah, you are. And there’s no shame in that. And I try to say, “You can have an impact on so many people’s lives by just putting your name on a ballot.”

AMANDA LANG: I love the positivity there. And I will be honest, as somebody who’s never been in politics but have been politics adjacent, because so many of my family have been political. And my lens on it is that it’s hard. You say the privilege of knocking on doors, I think, “Oh my God, the horror of knocking on doors.” IThat’s a hard thing to do, right? To go up to a stranger and make yourself vulnerable and say, “Here I am, judge me. I need you to judge me, and I need you to find it favourable in order for me to do the job I want to do.” Do you think overall—I mean, to your point—sometimes the narrative gets a little negative? Do you think it’s still a process that attracts people for the best reasons and in the right way? Or is it still generally a positive thing when you think about who wants to run and why they run, and who winds up there?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Generally, yes. I would say it’s a positive thing because to go through the grief of gathering people around you to support you and raising money, and all the public exposure that you have to go through, you have to want to do it for, I think, mostly good reasons. Of course, I think there are people who go in very early in their lives and they think it’s all glamour and they stay in, and that’s all they ever do. And I think that’s a problem. I think that bringing some life experience to it or doing it for a while and leaving and coming back—I think all of those are good ways of being in politics. But the politicians I’ve known, and I’ve known lots now, for the most part, Amanda, they’re there because they want to help people. Now, I may not agree with what they think is helpful, but they genuinely believe that what they’re doing is going to help people in their lives. And that is the general rule. Just as most of those doors that I knock on, and I have two daughters and a son. My two daughters really don’t like knocking on doors. My son’s good with it. But 99 percent of the doors that you knock on, people are very happy to have a conversation with you. They want to talk about what’s important in their lives. I mean, I sound a little bit like Pollyanna, but I think social media has made us feel more negative about our world than it actually is. I think once you actually put down your phone and you’re actually in the community talking to people, whether you’re already in office or whether you’re a candidate, you’ll find that people are very busy in their own lives, they have concerns. And if you listen to them, then you are going to have a good experience. If you don’t listen to them, and if you just lecture at them, then it’s not going to go so well. But if you listen, which is a big part of a politician’s job, then you’re going to have a good experience. People are generally very interested in sharing their life experiences. And a lot of times, they’re angry because nobody has listened to them.

AMANDA LANG: Interesting. And I think an important point that we can see magnified our differences rather than our similarities. That’s one of the concerns we hear, though. And it’s interesting—I say this in the context of a current Ontario government that actually is doing some unusual things, right? It’s a conservative government politically, but it’s embracing unions. So maybe there is a different mentality afoot in some ways, but we hear talk of polarization, the Fox Newsization. Is that exaggerated? I’d love you to be Pollyanna about that, if I’m honest, because I hope it is exaggerated. I hope we’re not going down that path.

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Well, I’m worried about it federally. I think that there’s a pretty serious possibility that the next federal election will be very polarized, and wilI—I think it’s getting harder to find common ground. I would argue that there’s an element of that provincially, but I think it’s to a much lesser degree actually. I think that the populism of Doug Ford is more, and I don’t mean this to be snippy, but bright shiny objects, and we’re going to grab on this one, and this is what people are saying, so we’re going to do this. But I think he does listen to a certain constituency. I think that federally, what we’re looking at is a much more ideological situation where we’ve got a conservative leader who has a very clear agenda, or the people around him have a very clear agenda, and finding common ground and bringing in people who you don’t agree with is not part of that agenda. And that really worries me because when we stop talking to people who disagree with us, then we’re in trouble. We’re in big trouble in our communities, and I think we’re not as far down the road as the United States. But I don’t think we can ignore the reality that that’s a trend in Canada.

AMANDA LANG: Do you bring optimism, and I’ll admit I do, to the notion that regardless of campaign slogans and rhetoric and what gets said, and fringe groups that can seem very loud and present, in the end when folks get into government in this country, to me, at every level, they seem reasonable in the end. And I suspect it’s because—you tell me, is it because of the systems or because of the way government functions? We’re not a dictatorship; you actually do—there is a level of cooperation that even if you come in on of polarized platform, you’re probably going to have to move over to the middle a little bit. Can we at least say that that’s what our systems do?

KATHLEEN WYNNE: I’ve always believed that. I remember when Stockwell Day was the leader. And I would hold that thought. “It’s okay if he gets elected. Well, the civil service and the people around him will push him to the centre.” And I think that too about Pierre Poilievre. But I do think that there’s a new permission generally to be more exclusive of people who disagree. I would say 20 years ago, there was less of that. I think the rise in the anti-woke movement and misogyny, and hom- and transphobia. I mean, there’s no doubt that there—and racism, I think that there is a permission for behaviours that I would say a decade ago wasn’t there. And that worries me. But generally, I think that our systems, the fact of our bureaucracy, the fact that our civil service is not politicized in the way that some others are in other countries—I think that’s a huge benefit to us. Because it means when a Prime Minister and his Cabinet or her Cabinet sit down and ask for advice, they’re getting advice that is, at least in my experience in Ontario, they’re getting advice that is pretty nonpartisan. It’s pretty much rooted in evidence and what’s going on in the world. Now, it can be ignored, and it has been ignored in the past, but at least that advice is there, and somebody’s going to hear the middle option. So I do put some stock in that, but I can’t be completely Pollyanna right now. I feel anxious about what’s going on. I think the convoy and the anger in that whole movement, or whatever it was, is very frightening, and I see echoes of it in some of the things that are happening either in our schools or in our communities, and that worries me.

AMANDA LANG: We’re going to have to leave it there. But I so appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for being with us for this.

KATHLEEN WYNNE: Great to have a conversation with you. Thank you.