Big questions go unasked in the first official Liberal leadership debate

OPINION: If the Ontario Liberals are trying to choose a leader without starting any new feuds, Sunday’s debate was a decent start. But if they’re trying to figure out what went wrong in 2018, it wasn’t 
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 09, 2019
The six leadership hopefuls appeared at an all-candidates’ debate in Guelph on Sunday. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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Brenda Hollingsworth was the last person to qualify for a nomination to be the next Liberal leader, and the Ottawa lawyer got her first chance to really introduce herself to the party at large at the all-candidates’ debate held in Guelph on Sunday.

“The most frequently asked questions I’ve received over the last two weeks are ‘Who are you?’… and ‘What the heck are you doing in this race?’” Hollingsworth, a relative unknown compared to the other five candidates, told the crowd with some good humour.

The latter question, applied to all the candidates, would be a good one for party members to ponder before they vote in February for the delegates who will, in turn, vote for a leader in March 2020.

The basic purpose of the race is clear: select, as leader, the person who will best be able to challenge the governing Progressive Conservatives in the 2022 election and, hopefully, win that election and form government. Whoever gets the job will need to be equal parts evangelist and office manager, as they’ll have to both win over voters who elected PC and New Democrat MPPs last time and also rebuild a badly battered party.

But the context of the current leadership contest — there are literally more contenders for Liberal leader than there are sitting Liberal MPPs — makes another question unavoidable: How did things get so bad, and what needs to be done to fix them?

Sunday’s debate focused on rural Ontario issues, and that should have been a fertile topic for some soul-searching: while the Liberals won rural ridings across southern Ontario handily in 2003 and again in 2007, those seats switched to the PCs and NDP in 2011, and the party has struggled ever since. But any evidence that the Liberals are thinking hard about their failures was visible only in brief moments during the two-hour debate.

Michael Coteau, a former cabinet minister, criticized the Liberal party’s record on renewable energy, saying that they had imposed wind turbines on rural communities where they weren’t welcome. Alvin Tedjo and Kate Graham, both defeated 2018 candidates with no other elected political experience, more directly challenged the party’s record in power. Tedjo criticized the decision to sell part of Hydro One and made the case that the provincial government should be more interventionist and use publicly owned utilities to provide necessary services, including rural broadband internet.

Graham discussed the difficulties she’d faced with Queen’s Park when she tried to get a supervised-injection provider in London — making that part of a pitch to push power out from the provincial capital into regions more than a short drive from Toronto.

“When it comes to what we’re looking for from politicians, it’s not about having the answers,” Graham said. “It has to be about listening to people in communities about the things they know will solve the problems they face.”

(This isn’t a disinterested argument from Graham: until Hollingsworth joined the race at the last minute, the Londoner was the only candidate for Liberal leader who isn’t from the Greater Toronto Area.)

The candidates’ reluctance to criticize the party’s own record was most notable when the debate turned to rural education issues. On this file, the Liberals obviously let rural communities down: 300 small-town schools were threatened with closure in 2017, some of them in single-school communities where the nearest alternative would mean hour-long drives for parents and kids. The Liberals eventually made $20 million available and declared a moratorium on rural school closures, but the battle was one of a number that left many rural communities disillusioned with the Liberals.

And the minister of education who had been responsible for the file when this all went down was on the debate stage on Sunday: Mitzie Hunter. The Liberals could have had an interesting argument about what urban Ontario owes to our rural communities, how we balance the demands of using public funds efficiently and keeping the fabric of small communities intact. Such an argument might have even been politically advantageous for one of the candidates on that stage, if they’d been interested in trying to have it. But even the candidates who were willing to talk about some of the party’s failures (if only gently and a bit) seemed uninterested in having a real debate break out.

It might be expecting too much for the Liberals to engage in some searing self-criticism: the delegated-convention process they chose to leave in place earlier this year means that candidates have a strong incentive to keep their attacks mild in the hopes of garnering second- and third-ballot support. But political parties don’t suffer the kind of apocalyptic drubbing the Liberals endured in 2018 without having made lots of enemies, and it’s still not clear that the party knows why that happened — and how not to repeat their mistakes in the future.

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