Why the Ontario Liberals still don’t get it

OPINION: During the recent Liberal leadership debate, candidates talked about what went wrong for the party in 2018 — but no one had the real answer
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 20, 2019
Four of the five candidates currently running for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party appeared on stage at an Ontario Real Estate Association conference on Monday. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)



I was at the Ontario Liberals’ end-of-campaign event the night of the 2018 provincial election, covering it on radio and TV for Global News, my then-employer. You’ll note that I called it an event rather than a party. It had many of the trappings of a party. There was a group of people. Snacks and adult beverages were served. There was loud music. Some in the crowd were dressed up. But only the music — I remember Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," which seemed a particularly odd choice, given the mood — stopped it from feeling like a very different type of gathering: a wake or shiva. 

I wasn’t at the Ontario Real Estate Association’s conference on Monday, when TVO’s Steve Paikin interviewed four of the five candidates currently running for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party. But I made a point of reading the coverage, much of which focused on the discussion among the candidates of what had gone wrong for the party in 2018. Steven Del Duca, who lost his own riding to a Tory challenger that year, made headlines when he said that the party might have “swung at a few too many pitches.”

Possibly. But Del Duca’s comment immediately reminded me of that night I spent at the Liberal event. And I’m not sure that the Liberals get it, even to this day.

By the time I’d been mic’d up, the Liberal campaign was obviously about to suffer a major defeat. The party had revised its own definition of victory downward repeatedly throughout the campaign. Its last line of defence, adopted mere days before the vote, had been hanging onto enough ridings to retain official-party status. In the end, it could not even do that. None of the attendees at the event had any illusions about how the night was going to go, and none of them was much interested in chatting. Most of the radio and TV focus was on the Progressive Conservative and NDP campaigns. It left me with a lot of time to think. That was a good thing. I had a column deadline that night. What was I going to say? 

What I said is now a matter of record. But it’s almost like Del Duca hasn’t read it or something. 

The problem for the Liberals in 2018 wasn’t just that voters were looking for change. It wasn’t just voter fatigue or accumulated baggage. Those were factors, no doubt, but it seemed to me then that the problem for Kathleen Wynne was that the Liberals had fallen into a bad habit of (almost) never admitting that they’d screwed up. As my main example in that column, I cited Wynne’s “stretch goal” defence of a failed auto-insurance pledge. To get enough votes to pass the 2013 budget, the Liberals, propped up by the NDP in a hung legislature, had agreed to an NDP demand to cut provincial auto-insurance premiums by 15 per cent by summer 2015.

It was a refreshingly specific promise, by political standards — with a measurable goal and a deadline. And the Liberals didn’t even come close to reaching them. 

Ah, well, shrugged Wynne, who’d been re-elected with a majority in the 2014 election and no longer needed the NDP’s support. No big deal. The auto-insurance thing, which had been specifically promised and much-discussed, wasn’t a real promise. It was a stretch goal. It would have been nice to achieve but didn’t really matter. 

I didn’t suggest in 2018, nor do I intend to suggest now, that it was this auto-insurance flop that broke the Liberal party. But I do think it very possible that the entire stretch-goal affair revealed that the Liberal government had lost a desperately needed sense of humility. Other examples of this stretch-goal mentality cropped up throughout the Liberal time in office, especially in the final term. It wasn’t that the party was afraid to admit that it had failed, per se. The Liberals routinely acknowledged that they weren’t going to achieve stated objectives — a balanced budget in 2018, for instance. But they refused to acknowledge these as actual failures. They weren’t retreating. They were advancing in the opposite direction!

The problem wasn’t, as Del Duca said, that they had swung at too many pitches. It's that they had missed too many pitches by a country mile and then insisted that they'd never had any intention of hitting the ball. The voters weren't idiots and didn't like being treated as if they were.

I am well aware of the other side of this — I have repeatedly chastised the Progressive Conservatives for their many public reversals and retreats. It seems a little strange, even I’ll admit, to be accusing the Liberals of making too few of them.

Still, there must be some happy middle between a government that is virtually incapable of admitting it was wrong and a government that is forced into doing so far too often. No one seems eager to defend the Ford government’s first year, which is why the government itself has made such sweeping reversals. But it is at least making the reversals. The Tories correctly concluded that they were on the wrong course, have admitted as much (repeatedly), and have said they’re trying to do better.

Time will tell whether it'll work. It's possible that three years won’t be enough time to undo the damage of the first. Over the past year, those vying to be the next Liberal leader don’t seem to have been able to digest the lessons of the 15 that came before it. It wasn't the swings. It wasn’t even the misses. It was the denials.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that Steve Paikin had interviewed five Liberal leadership candidates. In fact, he interviewed four. TVO.org regrets the error. 

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