Here’s hoping the Ontario Liberal leadership race is about more than just winning the next election

OPINION: In choosing Kathleen Wynne’s successor, the Liberals must weigh principle against pragmatism. A new bill from MPP Marie-France Lalonde may indicate which way the party is leaning
By John Michael McGrath - Published on April 5, 2019
Marie Lalonde
Marie-France Lalonde, MPP for Orleans, introduced Bill 96, which proposes to lower the voting age in Ontario to 16, among other things. (John Michael McGrath)

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If one of the most basic elements of a leadership campaign is having more than one declared candidate, then the Ontario Liberal Party is still not quite there yet. Steven Del Duca officially launched his campaign yesterday; MPP Michael Coteau has said that he’s also in the race, albeit informally for now. There are a handful of other names being tossed around, although before this leadership race really gets going, the Liberals will have to work out such mundane details as when the vote will be held and how the leader will actually be selected.

There’s going to be plenty of time to debate those details before they’re decided on at the Liberal party’s annual general meeting, which will be held in Mississauga this June. Then, candidates will start fighting over the future of the Ontario Liberal Party: left-wing or centrist; principled or pragmatic; visionary or merely revisionary.

The early signs — which, fair warning, could turn out to have been misleading — have Del Duca positioned as a candidate who would take a more centrist tack, leaving the ardent progressivism of the Kathleen Wynne years in the past. But the real world is complicated: for example, Del Duca launched his leadership bid with a pledge that the Liberal roster of candidates in 2022 would be at least 50 per cent female, something Wynne didn’t manage in either of the election campaigns she led. (Del Duca was also, of course, transportation minister under Wynne — and I’ve had plenty to say about that.)

The nature of being in opposition is that your party’s leadership race is going to be focused overwhelmingly on defeating the government — in this case, the Tories generally, and Doug Ford very specifically. But it would be a waste of the Liberals’ renewal efforts if they didn’t take the opportunity to think more broadly about the role their party can play in Ontario politics.

On that score, there’s some good news: this week, Marie-France Lalonde, MPP for Orleans, introduced Bill 96, the Democratic Participation Act, which proposes, among other things, to lower the voting age in Ontario to 16, limit opinion polling during election periods, and allow the use of ranked ballots in byelections as a pilot project.

Lalonde emphasized, at a press conference on Wednesday, that she wants the bill to be the starting point for a discussion, not the end of it: “Listening is the best way to identify problems that require government solutions. Real conversations with the public about evidence and possible options, real facts about the reasons behind decisions, including what other options were considered, are a new way that will imbue the results with real democratic legitimacy.”

She’s not the only one thinking about tweaks at Queen’s Park. There’s a Parliamentary Reform Caucus whose members — Liberal Nathalie Des Rosiers, Green leader Mike Schreiner, and former Tory MPP Randy Hillier — want to see changes to the way the legislative assembly runs things.

Parties in opposition always have lots of great ideas for parliamentary reform. But when they get to government, there’s somehow always another priority. The Ontario Liberals may have met the letter of their 2003 pledge to hold a referendum on electoral reform, but, by 2007, nobody was in any doubt as to which side they were on. (Guess what: the status quo worked for them.) Online voting? “Citizen juries” to debate major policy changes? More power for legislative committees? No, no, and no. Serious campaign finance reform? Not until the party was shamed into it — in 2016. All these things were promised in the 2003 Liberal platform, and they all fell off the radar.

The Tories, for their part, don’t seem to be breaking the pattern. They had little enough in their election platform, but there was a clear commitment to restore the powers of the auditor general to scrutinize and, if necessary, reject government advertising that was deemed too partisan. They haven’t done that yet, and they’re reportedly planning a major ad campaign targeting the federal carbon tax. The thing that was an outrage in opposition became an opportunity in government.

Maybe — just maybe — the severity of the Liberal defeat in 2018 will have chastened them. It’s been nearly a year since the election reduced them to the status of unofficial party, and the experience hasn’t been a happy one. The question is, if the Liberals manage to form the next government, will they remember only how bad it was to be powerless at Queen’s Park — or will they take something more constructive from their time in purgatory?

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