Why the next Liberal leader faces a daunting task of historic proportions

The Ontario Liberal Party has been around for 162 years — but its future leader will be taking on unprecedented challenges
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 11, 2019
The next leader of the Liberal party will be chosen in March 2020. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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For much of the past three and a half decades, being the permanent leader of the Ontario Liberal Party has been a pretty good gig. In fact, David Peterson, Dalton McGuinty, and Kathleen Wynne all became premiers. Only Lyn McLeod didn’t.

But the next Liberal leader, who’ll be crowned at a convention on March 7, 2020, will undoubtedly take on the most daunting mission of any leader the party has had since George Brown became its first standard bearer in 1857.

The most obvious headache will be money. The party is pretty much broke. And, thanks to the more restrictive fundraising rules put in place by Wynne’s government, it’s become significantly harder to raise cash if you’re not the government (with only five seats in the Ontario legislature, these guys are a long way away from being government). There’s only so much begging head office can do with party loyalists, of whom there are now precious few. The last estimate put the Ontario Liberal membership at 10,000 hardy souls. Compare that to the reigning Progressive Conservatives, who may no longer have the 200,000 the party boasted of two years ago but are surely miles ahead of the Grits.

One way the parties can stay relevant on the ground is by putting in place a permanent organization attached to the local riding association. That’s another problem the Liberals have. There are 124 ridings in Ontario, and I’ve heard estimates that the Liberals are just plain dead in one-third to one-half of those ridings. That means no riding association president, no treasurer, no money in the bank, no volunteers. The situation is dire.

The next Liberal leader will also have the most difficult job ever finding candidates. Even when parties lose elections, they tend to elect a decent-sized caucus. In 2011, the PC official Opposition had 37 MPPs; in 2014, it was 28 MPPs; in 2018, the New Democrats elected 40 MPPs to become the official Opposition.

The point is, the more members you elect, the fewer candidates you have to find the next time. The Liberals have five MPPs today. That means finding 119 people who are prepared to put their lives on hold for a year to run in the 2022 election. No Liberal leader has had to find that many candidates before. Ever.

So, that’s what the inbox for the next Liberal leader looks like. And what’s worse, they will have to accomplish all that at a time when politics in the nation’s capital is very much uncertain. The lifespan of a minority parliament is, by definition, unknowable. Who knows when the fragile truce that currently exists among the national parties could come apart, sending the whole gang back onto the hustings and into another election? That would further strain the resources the provincial party needs in order to rebuild, because all the interest would shift to their federal cousins.

What’s perhaps startling is that, at the moment, there are five people who actually want this job: current MPPs Michael Coteau and Mitzie Hunter, former MPP Steven Del Duca, and defeated 2018 election candidates Kate Graham and Alvin Tedjo.

The cutoff to join the Liberal party to vote for one of these contenders is December 2. After that, party members will have some huge questions to answer:

  • How does the next leader intend to redefine liberalism for the ensuing decade?
  • Where do they see the party on the ideological spectrum?
  • How will the next leader inspire people to join the party and participate?
  • What policy-development process will the next leader implement?
  • And, perhaps most significantly, which candidate would best be able to deal with the unprecedented organizational and logistical challenges outlined in this piece?

I can’t recall a leadership contest in which the winner wound up envying the losers. But this may turn out to be just that.

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