Three questions the Ontario Liberals need to answer — and soon

By Steve Paikin - Published on January 11, 2019
Kathleen Wynne election signs
The Liberals lost official-party status following the June 2018 election, having won just seven seats. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

Because they still have too few seats to be considered an official party at Queen’s Park, the Ontario Liberals are getting precious little attention these days.

But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the party, which has won the second-most elections in provincial history, has three key decisions to make — and it needs to make them soon.

First and most urgently, the Liberals need to decide whether to hold a contest to choose their next leader before or after the federal election in October. Conventional wisdom says that the leadership race should come afterwards: Liberals are going to be fixated on getting Justin Trudeau re-elected; as a result, there simply won’t be enough bandwidth remaining to engage provincial party members, raise money, and put the necessary resources into running a decent leadership campaign.

The flipside of the argument is that the provincial party won’t be able to make any progress on its needs — getting out of debt, figuring out what it stands for going forward — without a new, permanent leader in place.

Second, if I heard it once, I heard it 100 times during the 2018 provincial election: Why are the Liberals trying to out-NDP the NDP? After the thrashing the Liberals took in June — in which they lost 48 seats and official-party status — many members came out of the woodwork to proclaim that they were unhappy the party had moved so far left under Kathleen Wynne. Party members need to figure out whether the Grits should move back to the so-called activist centre or continue to stay firmly on the left to battle New Democrats for the progressive vote.

Finally: Should the next Liberal leader be someone untouched by the difficulties of the Wynne years? Or are there current MPPs (or even ex- MPPs) dynamic enough to rebrand the party? To be sure, there are members of the current small caucus (as well as defeated former members) who have been thinking for a long time about contesting the leadership. Their roots in the party run deep. They know whom they want to run their campaigns. They have already identified fundraisers. It’s a safe bet that these members would welcome a leadership convention sometime this year.

Still, there may be an advantage to having someone come in fresh — someone unencumbered by the weight of the Wynne (or even Dalton McGuinty) years. The problem is, many of the people on this list have declined having any interest in the job. That includes Sandra Pupatello, who came second to Wynne in the 2013 leadership race and would likely move the party back to its traditional middle-of-the-road ideology. It would also include entrepreneurs such as Anthony Lacavera — founder of WIND Mobile and chair of Globalive Holdings — whom some Liberals are trying to get into the race.

If the provincial Liberals decide to wait until after the federal election is over, then the above list could eventually also include Liberal MPs left out of the prime minister’s cabinet, should Trudeau get re-elected. And if the federal Liberals lose the election, then those MPs who don’t fancy life in opposition may consider running for the provincial leadership.

It’s a rare thing for an MP to leave Ottawa in hopes of becoming an Ontario party leader, but it has happened before. Bob Rae was a rising star on the federal scene in the 1970s, but he quit in 1982 to become leader of the Ontario NDP. Eight years later, he was premier.

And, of course, less than four years ago, Patrick Brown left the federal Conservative caucus and successfully sought the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership. He was well on his way to becoming premier before being forced out of his position early last year amid scandal. (Brown is now the mayor of Brampton.)

In any event, although the federal campaign will inevitably suck up much of the political oxygen in Ontario, the provincial Liberals do have some pressing issues to resolve. The decisions they make will go a long way toward determining whether Liberals are just temporarily in the penalty box, as interim leader John Fraser has put it, or are facing a more serious existential crisis.

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