Both friend and foe have Ontario’s Liberals in the crosshairs

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 27, 2018
Kathleen Wynne sits in the Ontario legislature
Kathleen Wynne's continued presence in the legislature is making it harder for the Liberals to turn the page on their election defeat. (Cole Burston/CP) By Steve Paikin

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This may be the most difficult time in history to be an Ontario Liberal.

Supporters have to face the reality that former premier Kathleen Wynne just a few months ago led the party to its worst finish ever — it won seven seats in a 124-seat legislature and fell one seat short of recognized-party status.

This weekend, the party is inviting “all interested Ontario Liberals” to attend a special provincial council meeting. The event will no doubt be the scene of a major bloodletting: members will surely let party brass know how upset they are with the election results and more.

Co-campaign chair David Herle, who’s seen up close some of the greatest political wins and losses in this country’s history, will make a presentation and hold a question-and-answer session. Such sessions tend to be gentle when a party is coming off a win. This one will be brutal — and Herle is doubtless steeling himself for a tongue-lashing, particularly from those who think the party veered too far left this time out and abandoned its traditional place in the middle of the political spectrum.

And it’s not just Liberals themselves who are taking aim at the party’s record: earlier this week, the Progressive Conservative government announced that it would establish a new legislative committee to examine spending under the Liberals. Premier Doug Ford used some harsh rhetoric in describing what the committee would be investigating.

“This was quite possibly the worst political cover-up in Ontario’s history,” the premier said, referring to the province’s balance sheet under the previous government. “Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals lied to all of us, and we all know that if you lie on your taxes, if you lie on your mortgage, if you lie on your car loan, there are consequences. You don’t just get to walk away. They used dirty accounting tricks to hide their tracks.”

Ford may have been referring to the “accounting dispute” (as Wynne called it) that the Liberals had with the auditor general, who refused to sign off on the province’s books, because of a multibillion-dollar disagreement.

It’s fair to wonder how legitimate this process will be. Because the Liberals don’t have recognized-party status, they’re not entitled to have any of their MPPs on this committee. So six Tory and three New Democrat MPPs will scrutinize the Liberals’ spending, and the former governing party will have no way to defend its actions. Skeptics of the process may justifiably conclude that the fix is in.

Even Toronto Sun columnist Lorrie Goldstein — no defender of the Liberals — welcomes the inquiry, “But with the understanding that blaming the previous government has a limited lifespan for the PCs of about a year.”

“I was shocked to hear Premier Ford’s harsh and inflammatory attack on his predecessor Kathleen Wynne’s record and action as Premier of Ontario,” wrote former Liberal leader Robert Nixon in an instalment of the daily blog post he sends his followers. “His words and stance were tantamount to charges of theft and misleading the electorate and taxpayers. References to ‘lining their pockets’ should have led him to refer the matter to the Attorney General and the OPP. Instead, a select committee organized under his thumb will have power to examine and lay blame as only a rabid bunch of newly-powerful partisans can do. It is apparent that his rapacious, partisan attitude and action will seriously imperil his government and the welfare of Ontario.”

A source of further awkwardness for the Liberals is the fact that Wynne, who is still MPP for Don Valley West, is a constant presence in the legislature. Liberals looking to start the rebuilding process no doubt want to be respectful of Wynne’s place in the party’s and the province’s history. But it’ll be tough for the party to rebrand itself while Wynne is still there. And with the Grits just one seat shy of recognized-party status, Wynne can’t very well quit her seat and drag her party even further from respectability. It’s a tough spot to be in.

Not to mention that, because of the stricter fundraising rules Wynne brought in as premier, the party’s ability to raise money to reduce its debt has been greatly hampered. How the Liberals intend to finance a leadership contest before the next election is an open question.

Some Liberals have even suggested to me that the financial hole is so vast that the party should simply declare bankruptcy and start from scratch with a new name, as other provincial parties have done (Saskatchewan’s PC party, for example, was so destitute following a series of scandals that the party simply closed shop and, in 1997, reformed as the Saskatchewan Party, which is currently in power there). This option hasn’t been formally advanced by any Liberals that I know of, but there are certainly some concerned party members musing about it.

Any way you look at it, the next four years promise to be some of the most difficult in the Ontario Liberal Party’s 151-year history.

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