Should the Ontario Liberals move back to the middle of the road?

By Steve Paikin - Published on June 12, 2018
Kathleen Wynne speaks to supporters after the Liberals were reduced to seven seats in the June 7 provincial election. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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You would think that the biggest story to emerge from last week’s 42nd Ontario general election would have been the first successful campaign run by the Progressive Conservative party since 1999.

Allow me to buck that narrative trend. Yes, the Tories tasted sweet victory for the first time in nearly two decades. But in some respects, the bigger story is the utter collapse of the Ontario Liberals, who had their worst showing ever.

In more than a century and a half of Ontario history, never have the Grits won fewer seats than they did on June 7 — just seven. (Their previous worst showing was eight in 1951).  To me, that’s an even more compelling story, one worthy of some serious investigation.

Yes, it’s easy to say that the Liberals were thrashed because too many Ontarians fell out of love with Premier Kathleen Wynne. The list of reasons for why that happened is long and includes the partial privatization of Hydro One, high electricity prices, her personal style (which rubbed many people the wrong way), scandals, and general fatigue after 15 years of Liberals in power.

I’ve spent the past few days talking to as many Liberals as possible, and one consistent refrain has emerged: that Ontarians are a moderate people, that the Liberal party has traditionally tried to occupy the middle of the political spectrum, and that Wynne vacated that space in favour of competing with the New Democrats to see which party could be more socially democratic.

“I’ve always believed in a Liberal party featuring fiscal rectitude with progressive social policy,” says Ontario’s 20th premier, David Peterson. “You have to get that mix right for that moment in history.”

And did the 2018 version of the Ontario Liberals do that?

“I think the party got the mix wrong,” Peterson acknowledges. 

“Trying to be a second socialist party is not the way to rebuild the party going forward,” says Marcel Wieder, a lifelong Liberal supporter from Toronto who helped create the Working Families coalition, which supported the Liberals several elections in a row.

“The Liberals have to find their more central position,” says Jennifer Mossop, Liberal MPP for Stoney Creek from 2003 to 2007.

“Let’s see if they can help disrupt the polarization we’re experiencing in politics and bring people back to common, shared, civil ground.”

Back in the day, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau used to say that Liberals should occupy “the extreme middle.”

“We want to do good, but not all at once” is how one former senior backroom adviser described it, knowing all too well what happens when a government tries to do too much, too soon — and against the public’s will.

“They were so worried about the threat from the left, they forgot about the right” is how one former cabinet minister described it.

The last straw for many Liberals was this year’s budget. After having taken seven years to put the province’s finances back on track, Wynne decided to take a page out of Justin Trudeau’s playbook and start running big deficits again.

“All of the effort to balance the budget and then abruptly to go back into six years of deficits was a big mistake,” former Liberal finance minister Greg Sorbara tells me. “Had I been there and been directed to do that, I'd have resigned.”

Peterson echoes the point, if not quite so dramatically. “Deficits leave messes for your kids to clean up, just as environmental degradation does,” he says, suggesting that once the books had been balanced, the government should have done everything necessary to keep them so.

“The fiscal calculus was missing,” another former senior adviser from a previous Liberal regime says. “It was all about spending. There was nobody around to say, ‘Now, wait a second — how do we pay for all this?’”

Others observed that the longer Wynne was in power, the fewer dissenting voices she listened to. Many Liberals I’ve talked to referred to the current premier’s office as an echo chamber that shut out the views of those who were desperate to pull the Grits back toward the middle. They said Wynne was notorious for not doing what premiers typically do, which is to check in with long-time advisers to prior Liberal administrations for advice. 

One former cabinet minister once told me, “The only time I hear from her is when she wants me to raise money.”

“Calls were made,” another former adviser says, “but it was never for actual input. It was just to keep us in the tent.”

Add to all that a fairly weak finance minister in Charles Sousa — who was unable to push back against the premier’s office — and you’ve got a perfect storm brewing, critics say.

Ironically, it was Doug Ford’s populist campaign for the PCs that put forward numerous policy ideas that were focused on pocketbook issues and designed to appeal to the moderate voter: cutting the gas tax, making it easier and more affordable to buy beer, and at least paying lip service to balancing the books.

It seemed that even the Liberal campaign eventually realized that it had moved too far to the left. Wynne tried to hang Andrea Horwath out to dry by criticizing the NDP leader for her failure to find any circumstances in which back-to-work legislation would be appropriate to end a strike. (The comments referred to the labour dispute at York University, which is now in its 15th week.) Unfortunately for the Liberal leader, her willingness last year to let strikes at Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and technology go on for a month before bringing down the hammer made her a less than credible messenger on that subject. In addition, I suspect that the electorate, which saw Wynne spend five years cozying up to the public-sector unions, found her campaign rhetoric about getting tough on unions not entirely credible.

Many Liberals seem to believe that, given the disastrous outcome of last Thursday’s election, the party’s days of trying to compete with the NDP on the left of the political spectrum ought to be over and that the party should return to its more traditional home in the middle of the road.


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