Alvin Tedjo wants to be the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. There’s one big thing that sets him apart from the other declared candidates for the position: he’s never held any kind of elected office. If the Liberals decide to make him their leader, he will, necessarily, then ask Ontario voters to elect a majority of Liberal MPPs and make him premier. He can’t be faulted for a lack of audacity.
The 35-year-old isn’t exactly a political neophyte: he was a Queen’s Park staffer under multiple Liberal ministers, ran unsuccessfully in the riding of Oakville North–Burlington in 2018 (he came in third behind the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP), and worked in government relations at Sheridan College for five years before launching his leadership bid this spring.
TVO.org spoke with Tedjo about his qualifications for the job, the future of the Liberal party, and the nomination battle ahead.
Let’s get right to the biggest question I have about your leadership bid. You’ve never held elected office, but you want people to make you premier. How do you go about trying to convince them?
Things have changed in terms of who’s electable, what people’s priorities are moving forward, and I think there’s an opportunity right now. I told myself, when we started thinking about this, “Is it time for someone of my generation to step up and take ownership over what’s happening in the world?” There are important things I want to do moving forward. I want to focus on the future — I don’t think this government is doing that — and these are the ideas we’re going to use to bring people back, to get the party back where it needs to be.
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I’m a child of immigrants who came here 40 years ago; my wife’s family came to Canada in the 1600s. We’ve got a nice mixed family, we have three young kids, and everything we’re doing is focused on the future. Everything I’m thinking of is: How do we afford before- and after-school care? How do we make our next mortgage payment? How do we do all these things?
Do you think a woman asking voters for the same thing you’re asking for would be taken seriously?
I hope so. I’ve been encouraging a number of people to run as well. I think it’s healthy for the party, healthy for democracy, for people from many different backgrounds to step in and run. Different ages, different ethnicities — I think that’s good for us. Different life experiences. And there are several people I know are thinking about putting their hats in the ring either for leadership or for 2022, and I encourage more to do that. I hope that’s not an issue, but I understand it might still be an issue that women face a different uphill battle when they’re trying to get into politics.
Why do you think the Liberals lost so badly last year?
Over time, we lost touch with people. You could argue we weren’t really listening to our grassroots members or to Ontarians as much as we had in the past. We’ve been going around visiting as many communities as we can, and a lot of it was, “I hadn’t seen a candidate here in years” or “We weren’t a riding held by the government, so nobody from the Liberal party came.”
I think there was an opportunity during the election, when Doug Ford was slipping in the polls and the NDP was just about to peak, and Doug introduced his potential cabinet and showed the strength of the bench. We get so caught up in who our leaders are, what their personal numbers are, that we lose the aspect of the team, and I think we had a really strong team of ministers and new, exciting, energetic candidates we could have highlighted more.
Are there Liberal policies you think should be revisited?
Hydro is always tricky. Should we have cancelled the gas plants? Probably not. Should they have been sited there in the first place? Probably not. But the Liberal party set up the mechanisms for that to happen because they wanted decisions to be more arm’s-length.
I don’t love selling public utilities. I think a lot of people in Ontario and a lot of people in the party disagreed with the decision to sell part of Hydro One. The message people got was that our bills were already high, and we were selling to pay for other things. In general, people believe that when you privatize things, it’s going to cost you more money.
At the recent annual general meeting, two reforms you supported — weighted one-member, one-vote and a free membership class — failed to get the supermajorities they needed to be adopted. Is that conversation over for you?
I think so, at least until the leadership race is over. We need to look toward what else we need to reform within the party. My personal belief is that we should have a party that’s stronger than the leader. We should have associations at the community level that are stronger than the candidates.
We need to re-evaluate what it means to be an MPP, getting on committees, making committee work very meaningful — and not get into the position where it’s all centralized in the leader’s office.
I watched the last Liberal leadership race, which Kathleen Wynne won, and there were certainly candidates in that race who talked about empowering committees and pushing more power away from the leader’s office. How do you convince voters that this isn’t just another case of Lucy pulling the football away?
You show and don’t tell, right? If you start doing things a different way, it makes it harder for people to change them. If you do things a certain way long enough, it becomes a convention. If we start governing with committees doing serious work that affects the legislation as it moves forward, then that becomes the norm, and it gets harder to undo.
There are systemic things we can do in the party itself. We can have more leadership reviews and let caucus trigger them. I think there were a lot of good ideas in Michael Chong’s bill federally about how to run parliaments more democratically. Federally, the parties decided to leave it up to parties to decide whether to do those things or not; I think we should do them.
If we’re talking democratic reform, there’s the perennial question of whether we should have proportional representation. That discussion has been put on hold federally, and it failed in an Ontario referendum in 2007. Do you want to take another swing at it?
I do, personally. The question is, does the electorate, does the party have an appetite to talk about this again?
If we ran on ranked ballots and told people ballots aren’t going to change, how we count them is basically not going to change but that how you vote is going to go from marking an X to writing 1, 2, 3 and it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3 — if you ran on that and got elected, you’d have the mandate to do that.
I’m not saying we’re going to tackle this right now. Right now, we’re listening; we’re trying to take in information. If people say this is something that really matters to them, I’m behind them 100 per cent.
The first people you need to convince, before you get to municipalities or even Ontario voters, are other Liberals. What are you going to be saying to them this summer?
Leadership contests are family affairs. Whoever the winner is, we’re going to be behind. We’ll have a healthy debate about who the next person is. What we’re trying to offer party members is that we aren’t going to carry the baggage of the previous government and that it’s time for a generational change in the party and, in government, to focus on the future.
What I want to tell party members is that it’s easy to oppose Doug Ford for the things he’s doing, the things he’s already done. My wife works at [Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children], and she sees every day what a difference even a little bit of money can make. We did a lot of things for a lot of people, but there wasn’t a cohesive message that people understood what we were trying to do, and that’s what we need to do moving forward. I think we need a fresh face and a new voice to do that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.