For the Liberals, the countdown to March 2020 has begun

The Liberals have chosen to stick to their usual system for picking their new leader, even though a majority of members oppose it. What will that mean for the party’s future?
By Steve Paikin - Published on June 10, 2019
Ontario Liberal interim leader John Fraser
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser pictured at the party’s annual general meeting, held in Mississauga last weekend. (Chris Young/CP)

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We now know both when and how the Ontario Liberals will pick their new leader.

Roughly 1,000 Liberal delegates gathered at the International Centre, in Mississauga, on Saturday afternoon to settle those questions. But in doing so, they may also have — at least temporarily — opened up a can of worms.

There seems to be a solid consensus that March 7, 2020, is a good day to pick the new leader. It gives prospective candidates nine months to raise money, travel the province, and sign up new members for the cause.

However, fully 57 per cent of delegates to the Liberals’ annual general meeting wanted to change the format for picking the party’s new leader: instead of sticking with the party’s longstanding format of a delegated convention, they’d like to have implemented a one-member-one-vote system.

Unfortunately for those delegates, the party’s constitution requires that any change of that significance reach a two-thirds threshold. And, so, despite the fact that the majority of delegates wanted a new system, the party will stay with the one that it used to select its last two leaders (both of whom, incidentally, became premier).

Interim leader John Fraser, who didn’t indicate a preference, tried to put the best face on the split: he noted that how the Liberals pick a new leader is less important than finding someone who’s prepared to work tirelessly to build the party and province back up. He guessed that six candidates would ultimately throw their hats into the ring, which, he said, would be enough to demonstrate that the Liberals’ drive to replace Doug Ford as premier had been reinvigorated. So far, only three candidates have definitively indicated they intend to seek the leadership: current MPP Michael Coteau, former MPP Steven Del Duca, and former candidate Alvin Tedjo.

Del Duca, widely perceived to be the frontrunner, was also agnostic about the format. When asked whether the split vote threatened party unity, he pointed out that, even though the Toronto area was experiencing its first weekend of truly glorious weather, there was nevertheless a huge throng of volunteer supporters in attendance.

Coteau expressed disappointment that the vote had failed to reach the two-thirds threshold. He wanted a much more opened-up process — one that could bring in new blood — and he fears that the old system, in which members elect delegates who ultimately gather to pick the leader, won’t do that.

And the 35-year-old Tedjo, who ran unsuccessfully in Oakville North–Burlington in the 2018 election, is also unhappy that the membership fee may deter people (especially young Liberal supporters) from getting involved in the leadership-selection process.

So why did the convention fail to reach the two-thirds threshold? Having discussed the issue with numerous party members at the meeting, I got the sense that skeptics of one-member-one-vote were nervous about the prospect of single-issue special-interest groups taking over the party and having a disproportionate influence on the outcome.

In addition, some were spooked by the results of the 2018 Progressive Conservative leadership vote. In that contest, Ford emerged as the winner, despite the fact that his prime challenger, Christine Elliott, captured more votes and more ridings.

That’s one of the anomalies that a one-member-one-vote system can deliver, since it’s the candidate with the most points, not the most votes, who wins. In the Tory system, every riding was worth 100 points. That meant winning 600 out of 1,000 votes in a riding delivered as many points as did winning 60 out of 100 votes in another riding. Replicate that phenomenon over 124 ridings, and you can see how someone could win fewer votes and fewer ridings and still win the prize.

Evidently, enough Liberals weren’t prepared to take a flyer on this format.

Let’s acknowledge right here that there is no perfect system for picking a leader. Each one has its pluses and minuses. The system that the Liberals have chosen to stick with is also ripe for abuse. One delegate told me that, in his estimation, there are as many as 40 Liberal riding associations in Ontario that are essentially moribund — that is, they have virtually no members or volunteers to assume the jobs on the riding-association boards.

That will almost certainly encourage people running for delegate slots in the more popular Liberal ridings to run in those more remote places, should they fail to find a spot in, for example, a Toronto or an Ottawa riding. And nothing will mar the party’s efforts to increase its popularity in rural and remote parts of the province like a bunch of Torontonians filling up delegate slots that locals couldn’t fill.

On the plus side, at least a delegated convention ensures that whoever wins will receive the majority of delegate votes. It also usually provides for a dramatic and exciting television experience. The delegated-convention system was used to select Dalton McGuinty in 1996 and Kathleen Wynne in 2013. The McGuinty convention was one for the ages. It was a marathon: it began on a Friday and didn’t end until the next day. (For that matter, it also began in one month and ended in another.) McGuinty won on the fifth ballot, at 4:30 a.m.

For Wynne, victory came sooner, but the 2013 contest was also a nail-biter full of intrigue, with defeated candidates having to decide where to throw their support once they’d dropped off the ballot. That feature simply doesn’t exist in a single-vote, ranked-ballot system, in which members vote once and only once, with no “arm twisting” possible in between ballots.

Given the Liberals’ lack of official-party status at Queen’s Park, as well as their lack of fundraising heft and a permanent leader, perhaps enough party members felt that anything they could do to increase interest ought to be done — and a dynamic, delegated convention seemed the best way.

On Saturday, there was clearly some upset among those Liberals who felt that the party had missed an opportunity to increase participation in its next leadership contest. Fortunately for the Grits, they still have one thing going for them that is likely to bring party members together: Doug Ford is still the premier of Ontario, and unless something totally unexpected happens, he will be for another three years. If anything can unite Liberals in common cause, it’s that.

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