3 min

Is homophobia what’s sinking Kathleen Wynne?

Ontario’s first lesbian premier is historically unpopular, even though her rivals have mirrored her policies

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne speaks to reporters at Ontario Place in Toronto, Friday, May 25, 2018. Credit: The Canadian Press/Marta Iwanek

As Ontario appears poised to deliver an historic defeat to its first queer premier on June 7 — some polls have Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals losing every seat in the coming election — even our own community appears willing to turn a blind eye to the homophobia and misogyny that is driving, at least in part, her massive unpopularity. But I’m not going to let it.

Sure, the headwinds against Wynne were strong going into this election. The Ontario Liberal Party has been in power for a long time, and won its last few elections more due to the unpopularity of its rivals than because of any particular fondness. And there was the baggage of incompetent management of several files under the preceding McGuinty government.

But no premier of Ontario has had to endure the sustained personal attacks that Wynne has survived and overcome over her long career. By her own reckoning, she’s been labelled an “extremist lesbian” by political opponents since at least her first successful bid for school board trustee in 2000. A variation on those epithets has been repeated in whisper campaigns and actual opposition campaign literature against her in every election since.

Talk radio shock jocks like Dean Blundell routinely attacked her physical appearance, comparing her to a well-known male film director and accused sexual predator.

From the premier’s seat in the legislature, Wynne withstood opposition MPPs using dog whistles to single her out as “especially” unqualified to hold an opinion on sex education in schools.

Wynne shut down PC MPP Monte McNaughton quite effectively on the day with her response:

“What is it that especially disqualifies me for the job that I am doing? Is it that I am a woman? Is it that I am a mother? Is it that I have a master of education? Is it that I was a school council chair? Is that I was the minister of education? What is it exactly that the member opposite thinks disqualifies me from doing the job that I am doing?”

But she evidently could not permanently hold back the tide of homophobic vitriol that the PCs are only too happy to continue to exploit. Among the few clear promises Doug Ford has made on the campaign trail is a pledge to scrap the sex-ed curriculum as a sop to homophobic social conservative voters who just handed him the party leadership.

But ok, fine, let’s say that despite all the evidence, homophobia isn’t what’s driving Wynne’s abysmal approval ratings. That would imply that what people really oppose are her policies and legislative agenda. And what have those entailed?

Enhanced pensions, free post-secondary tuition for most students, free pharmacare for under-25s and over-65s, rent control, labour reform and boosted minimum wages, expanded daycare access, police reform, and massive infrastructure investment. These are the hallmarks of Wynne’s five years as premier, and they’re all massively popular when polled. They’re so popular that neither the PCs nor the NDP are proposing any major changes to these programs. The NDP have a slightly different form of pharmacare and daycare on offer and the PCs want to slightly slow down future minimum wage growth, but both have broadly accepted the Wynne Liberals’ starting point.

On the points that are less popular, we have rising hydro prices and a mounting debt. But neither the NDP nor the PCs are proposing any serious policy to deal with either. The PCs are pledging billions in additional tax cuts and spending increases which will only worsen the debt and deficit, and are planning to increase Wynne’s plan to deficit finance hydro rebates. The NDP have a broadly similar fiscal framework as the Liberals and propose spending billions to buy back privately held shares in Hydro which will supposedly somehow reduce prices by a meaningful degree. Again, neither party has a real solution.

It can be hard to accept that Ontario — progressive, urban, affluent, modern — could possibly be so homophobic as to drive out of office a qualified and talented woman simply because she’s a lesbian. And yet, it was barely eight years ago when the province’s biggest, most progressive, urban and gay city elected the tragically unqualified and openly homophobic Rob Ford to the mayoralty over openly gay George Smitherman.

Should Wynne lose to Ford on June 7, it may say more about Ontario’s acceptance of queer people than it does about Wynne’s management of the province.