Times are tough and getting tougher for Ontario’s Liberals 

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get worse for the Liberals, they did. Here’s why
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 21, 2019
Ontario Liberal caucus members
MPPs Nathalie Des Rosiers (third from left) and Marie-France Lalonde (fourth from right), pictured here with members of the Liberals’ caucus and executive council. (Twitter.com/mflalonde)

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It was almost a year ago that the Ontario Liberals suffered their most humiliating defeat ever, falling from 55 seats to seven — so few that they weren’t even eligible for official-party status at Queen’s Park.

In the 41 Ontario general elections preceding last June’s, the party had never fallen that low. In fact, the only time in 152 years that the Grits had failed to hit double digits in the seat count was in 1951, when Leslie Frost’s Tories bulldozed their way to 79 out of 90 seats (the opposition consisted of eight Liberals, two CCFers, and one Labour-Progressive). But even in that election, the Liberals won almost a third of the votes cast. In 2018, the red team didn’t even capture 20 per cent of the vote.

My point is, it was a thumping of historic proportions. Hard to imagine things could get worse, right?

Well, they have.

It started with Doug Ford’s government piling on, announcing in November its intention to raise the threshold for official-party status to 12 seats from the previous eight. No longer were the Liberals a mere byelection victory away from earning bigger budgets for research and staff, as well as the right to ask more questions during question period.

The party’s downward trajectory continued last week, when two of its current seven MPPs announced that they’d be leaving the caucus to pursue other opportunities. Marie-France Lalonde (Ottawa–Orleans) and Nathalie Des Rosiers (Ottawa–Vanier) both read the tea leaves, realized that the next three-plus years on the Ontario political scene were likely going to be unfulfilling and brutal, and decided to quit. Lalonde will seek the nomination for the federal Liberals in the riding she currently represents provincially — a vacancy that only emerged when MP Andrew Leslie, who’s been in office for just one term, recently announced that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election. She’s been an MPP for only five years.

And Des Rosiers will leave electoral politics altogether, moving just a few blocks west of Queen’s Park to Massey College, at the University of Toronto, where she’ll replace Hugh Segal as principal. Des Rosiers came to the legislature via a byelection and has spent only two and a half years at the pink palace. 

There’s no way to sugar-coat this: the loss of two fluently bilingual and talented women — both of whom, at one point, had been mulling a jump into the race to lead the party — is a significant blow to the Liberals. In politics, parties are like stocks: the electorate is constantly gauging whether they’re moving up and are therefore worthy of further emotional and intellectual investment, or moving down and therefore not worth the trouble. With these two departures, the Liberals are pretty unmistakably conveying to the political world that they’re moving into penny-stock territory.

There is something else that’s currently engaging a few #onpoli watchers — something that, under different circumstances, might have helped nudge the Liberals’ stock up: the party is obliged to hold a leadership convention within the next dozen months to replace former premier Kathleen Wynne. But, with the federal election only five months away, all Liberal hands will be needed on the national deck, which will give Liberal partisans another reason to ignore the provincial scene.

A vigorous leadership race featuring a slate of good candidates might have helped generate some interest in the provincial party. But, so far, only two candidates — former cabinet ministers Steven Del Duca and Michael Coteau — have declared that they’re in it to win it. Many others who’d been expected to show some interest are either keeping their powder dry for now (former education minister Mitzie Hunter) or have confirmed that they’re out (former attorney general Yasir Naqvi, who recently took the CEO’s job at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship).

Interim leader John Fraser is doing his level best to keep the Liberals relevant during this grim time. But my suspicion is that he can look forward to the premier and his cabinet ministers taking more than occasional jabs at the dwindling size of the Liberal caucus.

Now, let’s also recognize that there’s nothing permanent in politics. On October 21 (at the latest), the federal election will be over. It’s possible that some Liberal MPs from Ontario will lose their seats and look to reboot their political careers at Queen’s Park, as several Conservative MPs did after losing their seats in 2015 (think Greg Rickford, Daryl Kramp, and Paul Calandra — all of whom are now MPPs). That could inject some enthusiasm in the provincial party. The leadership race will also surely kick into second gear once the election is past, and it also may include some candidates from the federal scene.

Despite the Liberals’ woes, Ontario politics is quite competitive right now. A Pollara survey released last week shows the New Democrats and the PCs in a virtual tie (31 per cent to 30 per cent). The decimated Liberals are just a handful of points behind (26 per cent), and the Greens are at an all-time high (11 per cent).

And a recent fundraising e-blast by Greg Sorbara did better than he expected. Acknowledging that the provincial party was in rough shape without a permanent leader and that the focus was on the federal scene, the former Liberal finance minister and party president appealed to supporters with a message that went something like: Ontario has always done best when there have been three strong options for government, so let’s do what we can to maintain that.

And how did the appeal do?

“I was very gratified by the response,” Sorbara told me by email. “It raised several thousand dollars from dozens of donors, indicating to me that the party remains a viable contender in the orbit of Ontario politics.”

Yes, today, the Ontario Liberals are a dispirited lot. But given that the governing Tories’ stock has dropped 10 points in the 10 months since the election, it would certainly be foolish to write them off. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals went from third to first over the course of one election, in 2015. So did Mike Harris’s PCs, in 1995. The only rule in politics over the past quarter-century has been that there are no rules.

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