Can anyone lead the Liberals back from oblivion?

By Steve Paikin - Published on June 13, 2018
Yasir Naqvi, Sandra Pupatello, and Michael Coteau
Yasir Naqvi, Sandra Pupatello, and Michael Coteau are just three potential candidates for the Liberal leadership. (Justin Tang/Peter Power/CP)

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Never in Ontario history have the provincial Liberals had an election night as bad as last Thursday’s.

The collapse of the vote was so dramatic that the Grits are no longer an officially recognized party at Queen’s Park. The bar for that is eight seats — and the Liberals won only seven, missing out on that eighth seat, in Thunder Bay–Atikokan, by 81 votes. Yes, every vote really does count.

Now comes the job of getting the party out of a gargantuan hole, without very many members of the provincial legislature to help. Fortunately for the Liberals, the Tories won a majority government last week. As a result, the Grits can focus entirely on long-range planning and rebuilding, rather than on the immediate politics of the day, since there will not be another election for four years.

When there are so many items on a party’s to-do list, it’s hard to know where to start. So, in no particular order of importance, here’s what Liberals need to start considering:

  • Given the election-night resignation by Kathleen Wynne as Liberal leader, who will take on the role of interim leader in the legislature? It will probably need to be someone not interested in seeking the permanent leadership. That argues for a veteran such as Michael Gravelle from Thunder Bay, who’s been an MPP for 23 years (although Gravelle’s past battle with cancer might give him second thoughts about undertaking such a big challenge).
  • Whoever that new interim leader is, he or she will need to start lobbying the new government to change the rules and lower the threshold for official-party status from eight seats to seven. The New Democrats won’t be inclined to allow the change, given that the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty made it hard on the NDP when the parties’ roles were reversed in 2003 (the NDP won seven seats, but fully regained official-party status only when a rookie named Andrea Horwath won a byelection the following year). However, it might be in the Tories’ best interests to change the rules, since the PCs usually benefit when their opposition is more evenly split between two “progressive parties.” Furthermore, giving the NDP 100 per cent of the questions — and the media attention that comes with them — during question period might not serve the Tories’ interests either.
  • The Liberals did receive more than a million votes on Thursday night. As a result, they’re entitled to a subsidy from taxpayers of somewhere between $2 million and $3 million. However, according to one Liberal insider, the party could be $10 million in the red, meaning there could be a $7 million debt to pay off even after the subsidy. And that will become increasingly difficult to do if, as Premier-designate Doug Ford has promised, he gets rid of the per-vote subsidy going forward.
  • Wynne’s government changed the fundraising rules, making them much stricter. Corporate and union donations are out. Individual donations are strictly limited. MPPs can’t even show up to their own fundraisers anymore. At the moment, the Liberals can barely pay their phone bill, let alone hire a new cast of characters to rebuild the party. That suggests a small, hardy band of volunteers will have to take on that task. Does such a thing even exist?

Of course, there remains a bigger, longer-range question: Is there a leader out there with the right combination of personal and political skills to lead the Liberals out of the wilderness? The Grits have found themselves in deep waters before. They were reduced to just eight seats in 1951, 11 seats in 1955, and 14 seats on four other occasions. They’ve come third in five elections, including last week’s.

The first question Liberal party members must ask themselves is, should we go back to our more traditional place on the political spectrum — namely, the middle? My bet is that most Liberals would say yes because they feel that the party has moved too far to the left over the past five years under Wynne.

In which case, the second question is, who can be the most effective champion of a more moderate Liberalism? And is it an advantage or disadvantage for that person to have any connection with the Wynne years?

If Liberals decide to give extra marks to those who survived last week’s drubbing, that could mean re-elected MPPs and former cabinet ministers, such as Michael Coteau (Don Valley East), Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough–Guildwood), or Marie-France Lalonde (Orléans), are in with a chance. (Former MPPs Yasir Naqvi and Yvan Baker would have been on that list, too, had they not lost their seats. They’re certainly not disqualified from contention, but their task is now harder.)

To be sure, some Liberals will be of the opinion that being less closely tied to the Wynne years is an asset. They may look to someone like Sandra Pupatello, who came second to Wynne at the 2013 leadership convention. Pupatello is a much more centrist Liberal, one whose big personality and passion for selling Ontario to the world made her a competitive candidate last time.

Pupatello was our Liberal representative during TVO’s election-night coverage, and I asked her directly whether she would be interested in seeking the leadership down the road. Her answer was a classic non-answer: “I have no plans to run for it, and I have no plans to make plans,” she said, echoing what Bill Davis once said when he was asked whether he would seek the federal PC leadership in 1983. (He didn’t.)

My conversations with Pupatello supporters suggest that the former McGuinty cabinet minister would be interested in a return to public life if she felt there was sufficient interest in her candidacy.

And then there’s John Wilkinson, a former cabinet minister from the McGuinty years whose calm stewardship while implementing the harmonized sales tax impressed many. Representing Perth–Middlesex from 2003 to 2011, Wilkinson demonstrated that under the right circumstances, he could win support for the Liberals in rural Ontario.

Neither of these two has much connection to the past four years of Liberal rule. However, it’s also true that both Pupatello and Wilkinson come from southwestern Ontario, where the Liberal party is about as extinct as the dodo bird.

However, it’s also true that parties tend to look for the opposite of what they’ve just had. Premier Wynne was identified as “very Toronto,” meaning it could be a handicap for the next leader to come from the capital city. Outsiders could have a distinct advantage. 

Meanwhile, for those who believe the Liberal party is facing an existential crisis – not so fast. The federal Liberals had their worst-ever showing in 2011, coming third for the first time and winning just 11 seats in Ontario. Four years later, they won a majority government under Justin Trudeau.

“You can lose everything easily, but it can also go just as fast the other way,” says David Peterson, Ontario’s 20th premier, who knows from experience. In January 1985, conventional wisdom held that Peterson was a dead man walking in politics. Four of his leading MPPs had already quit the caucus to run federally, his party seemed to have no political momentum, and he was constantly batting away bad news. Six months later, he was premier.

“It takes magic, it takes skill, it takes organization,” Peterson says. In the early 1980s, he took over an Ontario Liberal Party that he now describes as a “bankrupt company.” “We had no organization, no money, and no candidates,” he adds. But three years later, it had all of the above and formed government.

Peterson believes the same thing could happen today, provided the party finds the right leader “with fire in the belly” to take on the job.

The search for that leader starts now.


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