With nothing to lose and a lot of ground to make up, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has just wrapped up the seventh in a series of town halls with Ontarians.
She’s been across the province on her unplugged tour, from Toronto to Brampton to Ottawa to Thunder Bay, Windsor, Ancaster and then back to Toronto.
This freewheeling public relations strategy – where voters can speak directly to their political leaders – is rare for Canadian politicians where events are usually overly managed, scripted and designed to be risk-averse.
The Premier, however, is facing the electorate in June and with the runway getting shorter every day, she’s taking some risks. Her ratings in the public opinion polls are in the basement and Ontarians are tiring of the Liberal brand – the Ontario Grits have been in power since 2003.
So, what does she have to lose talking to the people? Everything? Nothing? In fact, it’s not clear. Her strategists were not sure how all of this would turn out.
Jean-Michel Picher is one of the main proponents of this strategy. He’s a political advance man – a Canadian who learned his craft in the U.S., helping presidential hopefuls such as John Kerry and Bernie Sanders.
He’s hoping to bring a little of the open, unrestricted feel of the big rallies that are so much part of the U.S. political landscape to Canada. He said in an interview in The Globe and Mail in 2016 he thinks this is more democratic as voters are being invited to participate in the process.
In Canadian elections, for example, there is a tradition of smaller, restricted events. In fact, former Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper and his team were criticized for the scrutiny and the vetting process that participants of their events were subjected to.
I moderated two of the Wynne government’s town halls – the very first in downtown Toronto last November and this last one.
There were very few rules.
Anyone can show up to question the Premier. Seats were not reserved for Liberal operatives or friends although some stakeholders were provided reserved seating. At the first town hall, for example, members of housing groups and other non-governmental organizations were specially invited.
Participants could ask the Premier anything. She spent more than an hour listening and trying to answer questions.
For my part, I was asked only to outline the rules for the evening – respectful questions and try not to ramble. I had a quick chat with the Premier at the beginning of the town hall. My questions were not vetted. I did not receive compensation or a stipend for my participation – not even cab fare or a subway token was provided.
No one could say that I was co-opted by the Wynne team.
Rather, I was given a front row seat to watch democracy in action. The Toronto town halls were wild, woolly, passionate and emotional.
At the most recent one, a young Indigenous woman spoke strongly and emotionally about her situation and that of other Indigenous people. She vented, she told the Premier exactly what she felt and she refused to be silenced.
Another woman confronted the Premier about the plight of Black children in Toronto, noting a disproportionate number are taken into care by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
She was candid, passionate and tough.
Premier Wynne had no good answers for her or the other woman. But she listened.
She had similar experiences at the other town halls – some were nastier than others as voters just wanted to vent.
As a communications strategy, it’s risky. No one knows what questions will be asked and how the audience members will react. The optics – photographs or footage – of voters screaming or confronting a Premier is never ideal.
As good as the Premier is at fielding and responding to questions there is always the chance of a slip-up. And there is always social media to record her every word and step.
For Premier Wynne and her team hearing from voters – without any filter – is important. It also shows voters that she’s trying to connect.
So far, however, the public opinion polls show the Liberals running third after the PCs and NDP in the public opinion polls. Premier Wynne has yet to see any reward from the risks she is taking.