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Ontario’s New Premier: Implications for Energy and Environmental Policy.

The selection of Kathleen Wynne at Ontario’s premier-designate at yesterday’s Ontario Liberal Party convention may mark an important watershed in the evolution of energy, environmental and natural resources policy in the province.

The government’s direction in these areas had seemed increasingly adrift in the McGuinty government’s third mandate. With respect to energy there was a long and still largely ongoing moratorium on new applications to the the Green Energy and Green Economy Act FIT program following the initiation of the scheduled review of the program; a feeble one-year extension of funding for local disribution company (e.g. Toronto Hydro) energy conservation and demand management (CDM) programming;  and the apparent abandonment of even a pretense of rational system planning over political management through the proposed Bill 75. At the same time the government continued to quietly move both nuclear new build and refurbishment projects ahead at the Darlington facility, even as electricity demand continues to fall, and its future direction seems more and more uncertain.

On the broader environmental and natural resources policy fronts,  the best the government had been able to come up with had been a proposal for a contentless Great Lakes Protection Act. At the same time, as recently documented by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario it had walked away from any serious commitment to action on climate change, was proceeding to dismantle much of the Ministry of Natural Resources’ science and field capacity, continuing with the ‘open for business’ ‘reform’ of environmental regulations, and a single-minded project of clearing all possible obstacles to the ‘ring of fire’ mineral development in Northeastern Ontario.

In this context, Wynne’s victory over leadership contender Sandra Pupatello, the architect of the ‘open for business’ strategy which, in many ways, went further than Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” in its attempts to dismantle the regulatory framework for the protection of the environment and other public goods in Ontario, is unquestionably good news. Wynne’s win represents a major victory for the progressive side of the Ontario Liberal Party. Both Pupatello and Wynne had been clear about their continuing commitments to green energy. However, Wynne’s camp reflected far greater potential for the kind of deeper and more imaginative thinking on environmental and energy issues that the province needs. Former Winnipeg Mayor and Colleges and Universities Minister Glenn Murray - well known for his knowledge of climate change and energy issues (his leadership campaign appearance of Global TV’s Focus Ontario featured some very detailed comments on the virtues of community energy planning), the potential role of fiscal instruments in environmental policy, and urban sustainability - abandoned his own leadership bid and moved to the Wynne camp early on. He is an obvious potential choice for minister of energy (and climate change?), infrastructure or municipal affairs and housing. Gerard Kennedy, whose move to Wynne was a crucial moment during the convention, in addition to his extensive knowledge of social justice issues, has served as federal Liberal environment critic, is another potential senior member of Wynne’s staff if not a front bench member of the cabinet. Kathleen Wynne herself is well known as an intelligent and thoughtful individual, and has the potential to draw a new generation of talent into a government and party that was looking tired and out of ideas.

Wynne’s arrival presents some important challenges to the province’s opposition parties. In rejecting Pupatello, the Ontario Liberal Party has made a clear choice not to attempt to out-Hudak Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak at his own game. While this may position Hudak as the unchallenged standard bearer of the materialist/populist neo-liberal cause in Ontario, it may not provide him with a wide enough base to succeed.  This is particularly true if Wynne can realize her considerable potential to consolidate the progressive/post-materialist vote in Ontario behind the Ontario Liberal Party. The party had already made major progress (until the ill-fated Bill 115 conflict with the province’s teachers) in drawing the support of organized labour away from the NDP.  Wynne is well positioned to repair the wounds with organized labour, particularly in the education sector. She also has very strong potential to draw younger and more progressive voters who have been increasingly put off by the NDP’s ‘pocketbook populism’ and who may by sympathetic to the Greens, but uncertain of their ability to have a major influence on policy, to the Liberals.

Whatever the long-term outcome, the stage is now set for a very interesting few months in Ontario politics.