TORONTO – Ontario’s new premier armed herself with a larger cabinet and fresh blood in key portfolios Monday as she prepares to lead the embattled Liberals into a contentious new legislative session next week.
Right off the bat, Premier Kathleen Wynne defended her 27-member cabinet — five more than the previous one — as the opposition parties pounced on the extra expense at a time when the province is facing a $12-billion deficit.
An enlarged cabinet is necessary for the “serious work that is confronting us,” Wynne said after being sworn in as the province’s 25th premier.
“The issues faced by the people of Ontario require appropriate resources and the dedicated focus of this new government,” she added.
The Progressive Conservatives, who pressed for a smaller cabinet, said it shows Wynne can’t make the tough decisions to put the province’s fiscal house in order.
“She’s been the premier for 30 minutes, and already she’s increased the size of government,” said Tory Todd Smith.
There are 10 new faces in cabinet, including Education Minister Liz Sandals, a former school board trustee who has the unenviable task of repairing the Liberals’ damaged relationship with public school teachers.
Charles Sousa, a former banker and leadership rival who played queenmaker at the leadership convention, got the plum post of finance minister, sticking to the Liberals’ promise to eliminate the deficit by 2017-18.
“We do have to reduce this deficit, we do have to mange our expenses, but we have to do it in such as way as to be cognizant and socially responsible because we don’t want to leave anybody behind in doing this,” he said.
“No one’s going to fall through the cracks.”
Other contenders who threw their support behind Wynne in the leadership race were also promoted. Glen Murray took on the transportation and infrastructure portfolio, while Eric Hoskins got the globetrotting job of economic development, trade and employment.
Deb Matthews, a key player in Wynne’s leadership campaign, is now deputy premier as well as health minister.
Wynne added agriculture minister to her duties, a move she hopes will raise her party’s profile in rural ridings, where they were virtually wiped out in the 2011 election.
She acknowledged that the Liberals, already under fire by teachers furious over forced contracts and the $230-million cancellation of two gas plants, have a difficult road ahead.
“As your premier, I will be open with you,” she said in her inaugural speech.
“I know that we must acknowledge our mistakes, take responsibility for them, and work together to guarantee that they are not repeated.”
Wynne promised to balance social justice and fiscal responsibility, and build a budget this spring that will gain the approval of the Tories and New Democrats.
“There’s no one who wants an election in the province as far as I can tell,” she said after the ceremony.
“So I’m very keen on getting down to work and building those relationships that are critical if we’re going to be able to put together a throne speech … and put together a budget that will pass.”
Wynne is desperate to put a new face on a nine-year-old government that’s in trouble, said New Democrat House Leader Gilles Bisson.
“But the real question is, how is it going to change things for people back home?” he said.
“We’ll do the best that we can to propose ideas to the government. Let’s hope Kathleen Wynne is serious when she says she wants to reach across the aisles and find ways to work with people.”
Wynne made history Monday as Ontario’s first woman premier and Canada’s first openly gay premier, a milestone she marked in her speech.
“It is not lost on me that I am the first woman to be sworn into this office, and that I am doing so with the support of the woman that I love,” she said.
Political pioneers like Agnes Macphail, one of the first two women MPPs in Ontario, proved that it was possible to overcome the imposed social limitations of their time, Wynne said.
“I want to thank all of those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of equality … and everyone who has contributed to this moment and others like it, by refusing to be guided by prejudice or by doubt.”
But her breakthrough also provoked some odd questions about her wardrobe — specifically, her penchant for Hillary Clinton-type pantsuits.
“I have skirts,” Wynne said, laughing.
“It’s probably not a question that you would be asking a man if he were standing in this position, but I’m happy to share with you my sartorial choices over the coming weeks.”
Former premiers Bill Davis and David Peterson attended the ceremony, which included a standing ovation by all parties for Dalton McGuinty, who officially ended his nine-year run as premier on Monday.