Why the Ontario Liberals are having a debate about debates — and why that matters

ANALYSIS: The leadership hopefuls have different ideas about how the debates should play out. This may seem like a minor point, but it will shape the race to come
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 07, 2019
Steven Del Duca
Steven Del Duca is widely considered to be the front-runner in the Liberal leadership race. (Chris Young/CP)

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People are probably about as interested in debates about debates as they are in articles written by political pundits about other political pundits — i.e., not very much. But here we are in August 2019, and the Ontario Liberal Party is having a debate about debates. Stick with me, though, because I’m inflicting this topic on you for a reason: there’s more going on here than arguments about podium placement and moderator pedigree.

On July 24, leadership hopeful Michael Coteau (the only MPP currently in the race) made public his debate requests to the Liberal party executive: he wants seven debates, moderated by local reporters, to be held across the province. These demands are leagues away from controversial — they barely rise to the level of banal. Alvin Tedjo chimed in on August 1, largely agreeing with Coteau.

Of the declared candidates, that left former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca, widely considered to be both the front-runner and the party establishment’s favourite. (Del Duca has publicized 100 endorsements, many from Liberal stalwarts. By contrast, Coteau on Tuesday announced 34 endorsements.) Del Duca’s campaign has agreed, in its correspondence with the Liberal party, to many of Coteau’s requests.

“We are supportive of the idea of having many debates and holding them regionally,” Del Duca spokesperson Andrea Ernesaks told TVO.org by email. “We are also supportive of having debates focused on specific topics, for example to discuss issues and challenges faced by youth and those living in rural Ontario.”

Asked about the idea of having local reporters moderate those debates, Ernesaks added, “We are supportive of the Party considering all options for the debates.” There’s some space between supporting these debates and supporting “the party considering all options.” So we find ourselves with a front-runner (Del Duca) exhibiting caution and challengers (Coteau, Tedjo) urging change.

Why does it matter? Part of the answer is that the debates in the last Liberal leadership race — held in 2012 and early 2013 and ending with Kathleen Wynne’s election by Liberal delegates in Toronto — were a bloodless and boring affair. There were fewer debates (five), and the questions were selected and posed by members of the Liberal party itself. (One of the moderators in those debates? Steven Del Duca, back when he was merely a backbench Liberal.) The party went out of its way, frankly, to ensure that the debates never got that interesting.

It made a kind of sense in 2012: the party was already in government, so the perceived benefits of a hotly contested leadership race (that it better prepares the party to win a future election) didn’t apply. Moreover, there had been some recent examples of debates getting too spicy for the party’s taste: the 2006 federal Liberal leadership debates had provided opponents with juicy clips that they then used in attack ads against Stéphane Dion in the following election. (This may be more than a decade ago now, but it was still recent history in 2012.)

But such rationales are no longer relevant. The party is more in danger of languishing in oblivion than it is of being too interesting. But the instinct for caution remains, even in this wildly different context — and despite at least some of the declared candidates’ wishes. The candidates may disagree (a bit) with one another. What’s more important is that they’re attempting to overcome the party’s own instincts.

We’ve already seen this kind of battle in the 2019 leadership race — and it didn’t end well for those pushing against the status quo: Liberals who wanted the party to change its voting rules from a delegated convention (which favours backroom deals among candidates) to a weighted one-member, one-vote system (which has been adopted by every other major party in Canada, including the federal Liberals). The reformers won the majority of support but didn’t achieve the required super-majority.

Christine McMillan, the secretary general of the 2020 Ontario Liberal Leadership, told TVO.org via email that “debates are a really important part of the leadership process, so we are excited there is some buzz around them,” adding, “We are getting lots of feedback from our members about the best way to organize these debates and will have more to say in coming days. Our plan is to have the debates begin sometime after nominations have closed on November 25.” (The convention to choose the next leader will be held on March 7, 2020.)

The decision about what that debate and the ones that follow will look like won’t just be a minor proxy battle between the leadership candidates (though it will be that). It will also be the latest test of who’s being listened to as the Liberals try to rebuild: the younger, more progressive members of the party who are agitating for change or the more cautious party leaders who are trying to steer the party away from what they see as the error of veering too far left.

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