Should the Ontario Liberals have waited to choose a new leader?

By delaying its leadership contest, the party could have had a bigger — and better — field of candidates
By Steve Paikin - Published on Dec 19, 2019
Mitzie Hunter, Kate Graham, Steven Del Duca, and Michael Coteau participated in a November debate. Brenda Hollingsworth is also in the field. (twitter.com/OREA)

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None of the six candidates vying for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal party is going to like what I’m about to write. And I get that. The hopefuls and their teams have been traveling all over this huge province, signing up new members, raising money, and evangelizing for why they think they’re the best person to lead the party forward.

But if we learned anything in the lead-up to the 2018 election, it’s that you don’t need to have your leader in place years before the campaign begins. The reality is, at the beginning of 2018, Doug Ford hoped to be Toronto’s next mayor. Three months later he was the leader of the Ontario PC Party. And three months after that, he was Ontario’s 26th premier. That’s a spectacularly short runway.

Now admittedly, the circumstances were unusual. The Liberals were coming to the end of a 15-year reign and Kathleen Wynne was the least popular premier in the country.

Still, Ford’s meteoric rise got me wondering whether all the smart people in the political back-rooms overestimate the importance of having a new leader in place well before the next election. Leadership hopeful Steven Del Duca often reminds Liberal partisans that the next leader will have only 26 months to raise money, sign up new candidates, and figure out policy before the June 2022 election.

Again, no disrespect to any of those making the herculean effort to run for Liberal leader, but consider this: if you were anxious to see the end of the Ford government, would it make sense to hold off on an official leadership convention for another year? Or maybe even two years?

I ask the question because I wonder who else might have jumped into the race, had they not been forced to decide by November 2019.

What if the runway for that decision had been extended? Here’s what I think might have happened. I think some Liberal members of Parliament, whose careers weren’t taking off in the way they hoped, or who just wanted a shot at potentially being premier of Ontario, would have joined the race. That list might have included Adam Vaughan, Karina Gould, Mark Holland, Yvan Baker, and who knows, maybe even Chrystia Freeland. Her hectic travel schedule might have become less appealing, six or seven years in.

Don’t forget that, after two years of this minority parliament, the federal pensions of some of those MPs would kick in. I feel doubly convinced that this would impact decision making — can’t blame someone for seeking some financial security before considering a new job.

I also wonder whether some municipal leaders might have taken a fresh look at the contest. For example, Mississauga mayor (and former Liberal MP) Bonnie Crombie would have been ill-advised to consider a run for Ontario leader less than a year into her second term. That would have looked ungrateful. But three years into a second term? The unofficial conventions of politics say that’s okay.

Similarly, Barrie mayor Jeff Lehman just won his third term last year with more than 90 per cent of the vote. Again, running for a new job within a year would not have looked good. But more than a decade after winning for the first time? That would have been fine.

And who knows who might have joined the race from outside politics. Venture capitalist Anthony Lacavera, chair of Globalive and founder of WIND Mobile (now Freedom Mobile), was said to be considering a run. Ultimately, he begged off. Maybe the extra time would have nudged him into the race.

The point is, the Liberals are a decimated force these days, with only five MPPs at Queen’s Park. But they’ve still got a well-known and decent brand in much of Ontario. The province clearly wanted to send the party to the penalty box, but not necessarily to Siberia forever. Despite the NDP being the official opposition, many observers still consider the Liberals the bigger threat to the Ford government’s re-election. A more exciting, more vigorously-contested, more attention-grabbing Liberal leadership race with higher profile candidates might have done the party immeasurable good, even if the new leader had less time to get his or her ducks in line before the next election.

One thing we learned in the lead-up to the last election: a party that’s competitive in the polls should have no trouble attracting candidates to run. If the Liberals and Tories were neck-and-neck with less than a year to go before election day, my hunch is, a new leader would have little problem raising money and attracting good people. As for policy? Ford ran on a practically policy-free agenda last time, having jettisoned his predecessor’s “People’s Guarantee,” the one-time official PC Party platform. Ford proved it could be done.

To date, six candidates have worked their butts off through the current leadership process, and they deserve credit. But at the same time, too many Liberals have told me the current field leaves them with a bit of “lunch bag letdown.”

It didn’t have to be this way. Instead, the Liberals could have tossed conventional wisdom out the window — they just weren’t prepared to do that.

The Tories did it 20 months ago and, despite numerous organizational problems, they were rewarded by the electorate. This might just be another one of those examples of the old rule book making less and less sense these days.

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