‘Should the Liberals stay left or go back to the centre?’ Here’s why that’s the wrong question

The party will be picking a new leader in March. Members need to start seriously considering the choices that lie ahead — and what they think of Kathleen Wynne’s legacy
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 08, 2020
The Liberal party announced Monday that just under 38,000 people are registered to vote for delegates, who will then in turn vote for the leader in March. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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If the Ontario Liberal Party is very lucky, 2020 will be the year it looks back on and remembers as the beginning of its march back into the halls of power at Queen’s Park. That would mark a substantial improvement over 2019, when it languished in irrelevance and lost nearly 30 per cent of its caucus (that is, two MPPs) to greener pastures. But, then, almost anything would be an improvement.

The beginning of the new year will definitively end the relatively quiet “phoney war” phase of the Liberal leadership race, which will see the party vote for delegates in February for the leadership convention in March. The party announced Monday that just under 38,000 people are registered to vote for delegates, who will then in turn vote for the eventual winner. This more intense period of the campaign will involve more debates, more prominent endorsements (on Tuesday, front-runner Steven Del Duca announced one from Thunder Bay–Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle), and potentially more acrimony as contestants try to distinguish themselves.

If things go well, the choice of leader will settle a bunch of arguments within the party. Some of them are relatively prosaic and of little interest to the general public: Should the party keep the delegated-convention system of picking a leader or abandon it as the other major parties have? Should the party adopt a free “supporter” category to expand the membership from the relatively small numbers it has today? Some involve more salient policy questions: Will it pursue Alvin Tedjo’s proposal to unify the Catholic and public schools in one secular system? Will it support fare-free public transit, which Michael Coteau has called for? Basically, the leader will, to some extent, get to shape the policies the party pursues going forward.

At least as important, though, is the fact that the party will have to determine — at least, for now — the direction it wants to take post-Kathleen Wynne. The former premier is still a sitting MPP, and she’ll be a presence at the March convention, but which direction the party should go in 2020 has been the implicit question behind all the other questions in the race so far. It’s usually summed up as “should the party stay left or go back to the centre,” but that oversimplifies both Wynne’s legacy and the choices that lie ahead.

In 2018 and ’19 it, became common to say that Wynne had taken the party to the left of the NDP, but her record in office is certainly more complicated than that. Wynne partially privatized Hydro One — the provincial hydro utility — something the NDP never forgave her for and something that’s still controversial even in Liberal ranks. Her government struggled with balancing the provincial budget for years precisely because it spent those years being leery of substantial tax increases, although that changed relatively late in her tenure. Those are real parts of her record just as surely as the Universal Basic Income pilot and the $14 minimum wage are.

Numerous contestants in the current race could plausibly lay claim to part of Wynne’s legacy, if they were so inclined. Michael Coteau and Mitzie Hunter served in her cabinet. Kate Graham ran as a Liberal in 2018, supporting Wynne’s final platform, and has attracted some important allies of the former premier: Deb Matthews, the former deputy premier and a close friend of Wynne’s, is supporting Graham’s race. Pat Sorbara, Wynne’s former deputy chief of staff, has joined Graham’s campaign as an adviser.

Graham, for her part, doesn’t endorse the idea of a hard pivot away from Wynne’s legacy.

“All of the issues we ran on in the last election were very, very popular — things that Kathleen and the party championed. They did well at the doors, and they polled well,” Graham told TVO.org on Tuesday. “There’s an opportunity now to address the much bigger question of what kind of culture we want to build inside the party, instead of turning course away from one person. The party’s much bigger than that.”

The avatar of “returning to the centre” in this race is Steven Del Duca, and Del Duca himself has suggested that the Liberals were perhaps too activist under Wynne — or, as he put it in debates last year, “swung at a few too many pitches.” But here, too, it’s worth appreciating the nuances. Del Duca started his leadership campaign by promising that, if he were leader, half of all Liberal candidates in 2022 would be women. Del Duca supports getting back to the $15 minimum wage, which the Tories abandoned, and has proposed a public group-benefits package (including pension, dental, and other perks) for self-employed and contract workers. It may not be a UBI, but it would represent a substantial expansion of the social-welfare system and meaningfully help the people who could use it.

It’s easy to describe the recent history of the Liberal party as a “swing to the left” and to imagine that someone like Del Duca would move away from that, but leaders aren’t the sole masters of their parties’ fates: 2022 won’t be like 2003, when the Liberals could start a 15-year-long winning streak with a mix of wonky centrism and not being Mike Harris. Even someone like Del Duca, for all his establishment support, is offering voters policies substantially more progressive even that those Wynne was willing to run on in 2014. Events of the past decade have pushed left-of-centre parties around the world to embrace more progressive policies (even the U.S. Democrats are currently engaged in a pitched debate over the proper role of the state), and the Ontario Liberals haven’t been, and won’t be, immune.

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