There are six people running to be the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, but only one of them comes from outside the two biggest city-regions in the province: Kate Graham ran for the Liberals in the last election to succeed longtime London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews, while all her rivals in the leadership race are from either the Toronto or Ottawa regions. (Indeed, until Brenda Hollingsworth’s late entry into the race, Graham was the only candidate from outside the GTA.) Like all but seven Liberals, Graham lost in 2018; in the aftermath, she chaired the Listening Project, a post-mortem conducted by the party to explore the reasons for its defeat.
In a race that has been dominated by two former cabinet ministers — Steven Del Duca and Michael Coteau — Graham has nevertheless gained some high-profile support: both Matthews and Kathleen Wynne’s former deputy chief of staff, Pat Sorbara, are advising her campaign. TVO.org spoke with Graham the morning after the Liberal party’s northern Ontario debate, in Sudbury, about her vision for Ontario — and why the Grits have nowhere to go but up.
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TVO.org: Your website says your vision is to “focus on well-being.” How do you explain that to a voter in concrete terms?
Kate Graham: It’s a big shift in how governments make decisions. Traditionally, we rely on things like economic growth and GDP, things that measure how the whole province is doing together. The well-being focus instead focuses on people and quality of life. In particular, I’m interested in looking at the gap in quality of life. Some people in Ontario are living with an amazing quality of life, and other people are not. It can be because things are getting in their way, like not being able to afford child care, or education, or long-term care. I want to see the provincial government focus on removing the things that get in the way of people living a great quality of life in Ontario: that’s what well-being means to me.
TVO.org: Fair to say that you’d be trying to take a more granular look at the province, then? One thing the last Liberal government was criticized for was boasting about provincewide jobs numbers, for example, when most of the job growth was concentrated in the GTA and Ottawa.
Graham: Very well said. Even though, in the last election, we would talk about Ontario having the lowest unemployment rate in 40 years — I can remember saying that at the door over and over again in London — and, yeah, London’s unemployment rate had gone down, but the participation rate was also very low because people had simply stopped looking for work. The pace of economy growth in the southwest or in northern Ontario was not the same as in the GTA. We live in a province that is becoming more unequal, and I want to see that change by focusing on each part of Ontario, each community, understanding the barriers people there face, and working with local partners to be able to remove those barriers. We’re too big and too diverse a province for a one-size-fits-all approach. That kind of approach will leave many parts of Ontario behind.
TVO.org: In that context, I wonder what you think about the debate over a potential high-speed rail line between Toronto and London. Critics of that proposal in the southwest basically argued that it had been cooked up in Toronto.
Graham: I’m a big fan of connecting communities with transit. I spoke with groups like Why High Speed Rail, which led the opposition to HSR in the southwest, and they’re also interested in seeing transit connections in the southwest. They understand how important that is. The question is what that looks like. That group was asking the government to look at other options — like different corridors or high-frequency rail or high-performance rail. Have we examined things like using new electric buses? I think those are all fair questions, and the process needs to start with talking to people and local governments in the southwest about what’s needed, and it didn’t feel like that happened with the last proposal.
TVO.org: You’re currently in northern Ontario, a region of the province that feels pretty intensely that life-changing decisions for the north are made haphazardly at Queen’s Park. What have you heard in this campaign about that?
Graham: It’s been interesting in this campaign because, in each community, I find we’re talking about the same kinds of things. We’re talking about education, we’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about transportation, and so on. But the challenges of the north are so much more acute. I’ve heard so many stories — as someone who grew up in the south — that take my breath away, fill me with rage and sadness. One example: not too long ago, I was speaking with a father in Thunder Bay whose daughter needed treatment that’s not available anywhere in northern Ontario. He couldn’t afford flights for himself or the rest of his family to go with her, couldn’t afford to take several weeks off work, so they had to send their daughter by herself to a community where she doesn’t know anyone in southern Ontario, to be alone accessing this treatment. He had tears in his eyes, talking about dropping his kid off and knowing that he wasn’t going to see her for weeks. That kind of thing shouldn’t happen in Ontario in 2020, and there are so many stories like that. We need to do a much better job of making sure people have access to services they need in the places where they live. This is where you really start to see it: there are people in very large parts of the province who aren’t able to access very basic stuff we take for granted in the south.
TVO.org: This leadership campaign hasn’t had a lot of sharp disagreements …
Graham: We’re all on the same team.
TVO.org: But you’re all picking who the captain’s going to be, right? One of the few clear disagreements on policy has been between you and Michael Coteau. Coteau has proposed moving Ontario municipalities to fare-free transit, while your proposals have focused on frequency and service improvements and electrification. Why is that preferable to simply getting fares down?
Graham: I share a lot of goals with Michael Coteau, including making transit affordable, taking climate change seriously, and helping people find greener alternatives to taking a car. But the approach of making transit free — unless it is paired with a revenue source, it’s a download to municipalities. And I’m not in favour of any forced downloading from the province to municipalities. The cost of that idea, right now, would be about $4 billion every year. If we were going to put $4 billion into transit, I would rather see it go, right now, to expanding transit service: more locations, more frequency, more reliability. There are already municipalities that are making transit free for some groups, like children under 12, and I think that targeted approaches are much smarter. And making transit free is regressive: there are people in Ontario, like myself, who can afford to pay for a transit pass and should pay for a pass. That revenue is needed to expand transit services.
I’m all for making transit more affordable, but, right now, the main problem is we don’t have enough transit.
TVO.org: Alvin Tedjo’s suggestion that Ontario amalgamate the education systems and eliminate the separate Catholic school boards is the other potentially divisive proposal in this campaign. Is that something you support?
Graham: I’m not in favour of any form of provincially forced amalgamations. We need to learn from the past here. In the 1990s, we amalgamated 885 municipalities down to 444 based on the promise that it would save a bunch of money and lead to efficiencies. Turns out, having fewer larger organizations actually increases the costs pretty dramatically. I also don’t want to see a Queen’s Park-knows-best approach. I’d much rather see solutions in education, or any other sector, come from the people who know that sector best. My parents were both teachers — my dad was an elementary-school principal in the town of Exeter. When schools were scheduled for closure, one of the things that would often come up was whether there were opportunities for the Catholic and public elementary school board to work together, and we see examples of that happening all over Ontario. I would much rather see a community look at a bottom-up approach rather than top-down, rather than mandating sweeping changes across the province and promising savings that I don’t think would materialize.
TVO.org: Another idea you’ve proposed is a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform …
Graham: Yay! I was hoping you’d go there.
TVO.org: Okay, well, not to be a jerk about this, but: Liberals have made promises about electoral reform in the recent past that have come to nothing. Why is this different, and why should voters take this seriously?
Graham: I was referred to as “the boy who cried wolf” in one story. Voters have rightly grown quite skeptical of promises of electoral reform because they’ve heard these promises over and over again without it actually materializing. It doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of Ontarians, and Canadians, believe that our electoral system isn’t working. The idea that there’s 43 per cent turnout, and 40 per cent of people vote for a party and find themselves with 100 per cent of the power — it just doesn’t make sense. It leads to a much more divisive style of politics than I think people want to see.
The difference between our proposal and what’s been proposed in the past is that this citizens’ assembly would be empowered. At the end of the process, we’d implement it; we’d stick to it. To really name the underlying issue here: political parties and politicians have personal skin in the game. The first-past-the-post system works and is in the interests of the parties, so we need to take the politics out of it.
TVO.org: Do you think the situation the Liberal party is currently in — not being a recognized party at Queen’s Park — does that make Liberals more open to discussing fundamental reforms than they might have been in 2003, when the status quo was working for them?
Graham: That’s one of the wonderful things about the moment we find ourselves in as a party. We’re in the worst spot in our history. We’ve lost official party status. We’re in debt. We have to rebuild. But it also means there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s a perfect time to think big about what we want to see in Ontario, about the problems we want to fix. If ever there were a moment to be bold and to address problems that have been acknowledged but not fixed for a long time — this would be it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.