A Tangled Red Web in Downtown Toronto

By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 27, 2014
As the federal Liberals' poll numbers continue to impress, the number of candidates wanting to run for the Liberals is increasing big-time.

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If you look at the trajectory of the Liberal Party of Canada over the past decade and a half, you'll see the numbers have been going inexorably in one direction: down, down, down.

Jean Chrétien won a majority government in 2000 with 41 per cent of the total votes cast. But that was a last gasp of electoral success for what once was Canada's natural governing party.

In 2004, Paul Martin led the Liberals to a minority government with just 37 per cent of the votes. Then Martin lost the 2006 election to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, tallying just 30 per cent of the votes. In 2008, the Liberals had a new leader again --- Stéphane Dion --- but the result was worse: just 26 per cent of the votes.  And in 2011, yet another leader --- Michael Ignatieff --- led the Grits to their worst showing ever: third place in the House of Commons with just 34 seats and per cent of the votes.

The party was in disarray. Bob Rae came in as interim leader, put a tourniquet on the bloody wound, stopped the bleeding, and got the party's poll numbers headed in the right direction. But to say the party was "back" as a major force in Canadian politics wasn't accurate either. 

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But things have changed. Justin Trudeau is now the leader, having won almost 90 per cent of delegate support at last April's leadership convention. The Liberals routinely top the national polls now. What it's meant, in part, is that people who a year ago might not have given the Liberals a sniff are now deeply interested in becoming nominated candidates for the 2015 election.

Nowhere is that crush of interest more apparent than in downtown Toronto, where a plethora of well-known candidates is interested in a handful of seats. And even though seat redistribution will create new seats in the old city, it still may not be enough to satisfy all those who have their sights on Parliament Hill.

The drama actually starts with the old boundaries. Olivia Chow, the NDP MP, is widely expected to quit federal politics any day now to run for mayor of Toronto. When she does, that will cause a byelection in her current Trinity-Spadina riding. Christine Innes, who's unsuccessfully contested that seat in the last two federal elections, is expected to run for the Liberal nomination there again. But if whoever wins the nomination goes on to win the eventual byelection, he or she, as the song goes, will only be there for a good time, not a long time. 

That's because Trinity-Spadina will disappear before the 2015 election, and prospective candidates will compete on a whole new set of riding boundaries with new names such as Spadina-Fort York, University-Rosedale, Don Valley North, and very different boundaries for the currently named Toronto Centre.

Having just come back from the Liberals' biennial convention in Montreal, I can tell you these upcoming nomination fights were the focus of a considerable amount of attention. Party members are wondering how so many different agendas are going to play out. For example:

  • Chrystia Freeland is the current MP for Toronto Centre. Will she seek the nomination in that riding in 2015, or move to what's thought to be a Liberal-friendlier seat, University-Rosedale?
  • Once Trinity-Spadina disappears, where does Christine Innes run in 2015? Does she stay close by in Spadina-Fort York, or try to move to the friendlier University-Rosedale? If she does, does she risk competing against other high profile candidates, including possibly Freeland?
  • At the convention, the Liberals trotted out someone they hope will be a "star" candidate in 2015: Bill Morneau, a pension fund guy worth a lot of money, who volunteers for all the right causes (on the board of St. Michael's Hospital, Covenant House, and until recently, the C.D. Howe Institute). Morneau lives in Don Valley West (but has been warned by many, including former DVW MP Rob Oliphant who wants his old seat back, not to run in that riding), works in Don Valley East (where he'd run into a nomination fight with Chris Collenette, the son of former Liberal cabinet minister David Collenette and former Ottawa Centre candidate Penny Collenette), and volunteers for those neighborhood causes in Toronto Centre (where Freeland currently sits).  The party would love to find a safe seat for Morneau, but where?
  • Justin Trudeau insists all Liberal nominations across the country will be open, without any interference from the leader's office. Even sitting MPs won't be protected from nomination challenges, he insists. However, I picked up plenty of chatter that suggests that's already patently untrue. A group of Montreal Sikhs tried to challenge Stéphane Dion in his Saint Laurent-Cartierville seat. They were told by the leader's office to stand down and find another riding for their candidate. (They have done so). 
  • Chrystia Freeland may be a sitting MP, heavily recruited by Team Trudeau to come home from New York and win a seat (which she did in the just completed Toronto Centre byelection). But she doesn't have much of an organization and would certainly be vulnerable to a challenge, should someone want to mount one. Would the leader's office really not try to insulate her from such a challenge? Hard to imagine, given the role Trudeau wants her to play in a possible Liberal government.
  • Other well known downtown Liberals have been sniffing around for nominations for quite a while, people such as Todd Ross, John Campion (a partner at Faskens), Sachin Aggarwal (who used to work in Michael Ignatieff's office), and don't count out former deputy premier George Smitherman, who unhappily stood down from challenging Freeland for the Toronto Centre nomination in the interests of party unity. Can the Liberals find seats for all of them? Undoubtedly, no.

All political parties have problems, and I guess you could say having an abundance of interest is a good problem to have. But unless these things are handled delicately, the losers have a way of being embittered. And when it comes to election time, they could sit on their hands rather than help the victorious nominated candidate.

One thing the Liberals have going for them is that their Ontario campaign chair is former MP Navdeep Bains, a thoroughly likeable fellow. He'll need every ounce of likeability and people-skills to figure all of this out.

Add it to the list of things Team Trudeau needs to worry about these days.

Bob Rae had a much easier time winning a downtown Toronto riding. Next time, the competition will be fierce. L-R: PEI Premier Joe Ghiz, Bob Rae, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne,New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, and Newfoundland & Labrador Liberal Leader Dwight Ball.

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