The Ontario Liberal Party suffered a wounding in the last provincial election, with results knocking the Grits from a majority government to a minuscule caucus stripped of its official party status. In March, hordes of OLP faithful will assemble in Mississauga to select a new leader, whom the Liberal camp is hoping can spark renewal within their ranks.
This month, iPolitics interviewed each of the six leadership hopefuls about their visions for the party ahead of a 2022 election. (Profiles are listed in alphabetical order by surname.)
Michael Coteau is betting on coalitions.
He credits them with securing his provincial seat in the 2018 election a race he clinched over Toronto deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong by 1,028 votes. There were other elections before that, but Coteau was one of just seven Liberals to hold a seat in 2018; the party has since whittled down to five. Ive won six elections in a row. And Im not saying that to sound like, I win elections. Its more to me about building a coalition, Coteau said in a recent interview with iPolitics, examining his bid to become leader of the currently miniature Ontario Liberal Party.
Were not going to win this next election, as Liberals, by just betting on Doug Ford failing, Coteau said. Make no mistake. There are a lot of people who do agree with what Doug Ford is doing there are a lot of people who are loyal to him and his party. I think we need to build a coalition in this province that exceeds that kind of support.
And he extolls his faith in doing exactly that. He sees the ability as a key differentiating factor against his opponents in the leadership contest as well as his ministerial experience, though candidates Mitzie Hunter and Steven Del Duca each served as ministers in the last government as well. (Hunter held onto her seat in the 2018 vote. Del Duca was bumped from his role by PC Michael Tibollo.) Coteau sees himself as a fixer in Queens Park someone who, in his view, stabilized files like the Pan Am Games or autism services in Ontario. Critics may present dissenting views, asnews reports from 2016lay out a public disagreement between Coteau and Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk over whether the 2015 Games cost taxpayers more than planned.
Coteau acknowledges that his 16 years in public office first as a school board trustee, then as an MPP and cabinet minister at Queens Park may work against him in some ways. Some folks wanted a fresh face, new energy, he speculated. (Two of his opponents, Kate Graham and Alvin Tedjo, are former candidates. The final hopeful to be green-lit, Brenda Hollingsworth, is a lawyer in Ottawa.) People look at me and say, Oh, hes been around for some time. Hes one of those guys whos an insider, Coteau said. Shortly afterward, he offered a clarification. Hed been on the inside, certainly; but he insists hes been on the outside of what he calls the circle of the Ontario Liberal Party telling iPolitics that he had challenged the party on matters like education reform.
Read more about Coteaus leadership bid here.
Steven Del Duca considers himself a very traditionally partisan person.
The admission comes as the Ontario Liberal leadership hopeful discussed climate change, in a recent interview with iPolitics about his bid for the partys top post. He tacks on an addendum that the file, in his view, should transcend party partiality. But Del Duca, who has beenframed by at least one of his five competitorsas a sort of symbol of the partys establishment, doesnt shy away from talking about his three decades of immersion in Liberal politics nor discussing how a prolonged stretch of time in government work can narrow your vision.
When youre inside the bubble, when you hear the same advice consistently, over and over again, and when the challenges can be considerable a lot of the things thrown at you can be tough to untangle it becomes easy to fall into the default, Del Duca reflected.
The former cabinet minister was already being described as well-connected in the Toronto Star a decade ago, before his time representing a Vaughan-area riding provincially, which began after a by-election in 2012. But he was bumped out of office by the Progressive Conservatives Michael Tibollo in 2018. (All but seven Liberal candidates provincially faced the same fate.) Del Duca acknowledges that he had at least one clear blind spot during his last go-around at Queens Park, which was a lack of understanding about Ontarios inequalities and disparities that he attributes to spending his whole life living in the Greater Toronto Area.
One of my biggest personal deficits was falling into the trap that my reality was aligned to everyone elses reality, Del Duca admitted, couching the statement by saying he always knew there were inequalities in an intellectual way, but that it had never been visceral to him before visiting a host of varied ridings across the province during the last year.
Read more about Del Ducas leadership bid here.
Kate Graham believes that Ontario could stand to learn a thing or two from local governments.
The provincial Liberal leadership hopeful, who spent a decade as a public servant in London, Ont., and teaches politics at Western University, maintains that Queens Park doesnt invite the same public participation as city halls across the province. Simply strolling into the building feels more difficult, she said. Its a very distant relationship with the public.
Local councils, which generally operate without the same formal party systems as the province, see collisions of individuals ideas and perspectives something Graham admits doesnt always work. But when it does, she sings the systems praises, denouncing what she calls hyper-partisanship and division at higher government levels.
Most people are pretty turned off by politics. They dont care much about political parties, Graham said in a recent interview with iPolitics, pointing to the sparse percentage of Canadians who are card-carrying party members. (As of 2013, Statistics Canada noted that only four per cent of respondent Canadians were members of political parties or groups.)
And while tamping down partisan views may be a tricky sell for someone like Graham who, in slightly more than two months, will face throngs of dyed-in-the-wool Grits at a leadership convention in Toronto, with hopes of gleaning their support over the five other confirmed candidates and gunning for the Ontario Liberal Partys top post she espouses a belief that even party loyalists will see a need for the change after the provincial Liberals blistering 2018 defeat.
In some ways, were in the worst spot in our history, Graham assessed, noting the 2018 loss first, then elaborating. Weve got more people running for leader than currently sitting at Queens Park. Were in debt. Weve got a lot of work to do to rebuild in ridings all around Ontario. But its also an opportunity to think big about who we are and what we stand for.
Read more about Grahams leadership bid here.
At a downtown Toronto convention centre, on an evening in late November, five hopefuls vying for leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party were handed a microphone, and given time to make their pitch to an assembled mass of party loyalists. One candidate, meanwhile, was stuck in the crowd not yet eligible for a five-minute slot on stage.
Brenda Hollingsworth, an Ottawa lawyer who was the last to toss her hat in the ring for OLP leadership, had submitted her paperwork and met the financial deadline for the race, but was still in the throws of a third-party vetting process. It wasnt because I didnt want to (run), Hollingsworth said, defending her last minute sign-up in a recent interview.
The issue was, Im a trial lawyer, she continued. I had a case that I thought it would settle in the summer, and it kept not settling. This is somebody with a catastrophic injury. I couldnt leave them, and I wouldnt have been allowed to leave them anyway. And so, the case settled towards the end of October, and I took a week to decide if it was too late or not, and decided to go for it. So, it was just sort of circumstantial.
The under-the-wire decision left Hollingsworth with a short runway to meet yet another party deadline, which loomed large. New memberships could only be sold until Dec. 2, which was mere days away. Hollingsworth said she pulled in somewhere between 300 and 325, notwithstanding any who were disqualified for any reason. Its a scarce number compared with the 14,173 new members that opponent Steven Del Duca says his campaign sold before the cut-off date. Those members factor into a pool of 37,831, who will elect delegates to select the party leader in early March.
Its not a very long runway to do those things, Hollingsworth conceded, reflecting on her campaigns early days. Cautioning that she didnt want to take away from Del Ducas success, she noted that his campaign in particular had been building momentum for the better part of a year. In addition, candidates like Del Duca, Michael Coteau or Mitzie Hunter had spent time in provincial politics before their bids. Theres no question that its a challenge when youre coming in, literally, as an outsider. Im introducing myself to a lot of people for the first time, Hollingsworth said.
Still, despite the myriad of hurdles that come with being a late entrant and an unfamiliar face, Hollingsworth is banking on an appetite for a true political outsider to be leader propelling her nascent campaign forward.
Read more about Hollingsworths leadership bid here.
Two years after an electoral reform pledge was abandoned on Parliament Hill, flickers of a similar conversation are igniting at Queens Park with Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Mitzie Hunter saying she would absolutely pursue the matter at the provincial level, if she assumes the helm of her party and it eventually forms government.
Hunter, a former cabinet minister and one of six in the running for the OLPs top post, has pushed in the past for electoral reform at the most local level, introducing a private members bill as an MPP that focused on allowing municipalities to conduct elections using a ranked-ballot system. (The idea later became a government bill, and the City of London, Ont., became the first to use ranked ballots for its local vote in 2018.)
I believe that its better. I believe that it provides a more inclusive form of electing leaders, Hunter told iPolitics in a recent interview, during which she confirmed that electoral reform was something she would pursue provincially if successful in the ongoing leadership race. Also, it forces candidates in the race to be more respectful of each other and focus on the issues rather than the personalities, and thats probably something that would be welcome at this stage in our political process, she added.
Hunter currently has no intention of reconsidering the voting age in Ontario, but she would consider a move to register teenagers for the vote while theyre still in their high school years in order to cut down on the potential of young people becoming lost in the shuffle between high school and any post-secondary education they might pursue.
But before any of that comes a rebuild, the primary task facing whomever is selected as leader of the OLP in early March. Hunter currently sits as one of just five Liberal MPPs at Queens Park, representing the Toronto riding of ScarboroughGuildwood since a byelection in 2013. (Another member of the diminutive caucus, Don Valley Easts Michael Coteau, also has his hat in the leadership ring.) Hunter is pitching her role at Queens Park, having survived the 2018 race, as a favourable position for a party leader to be in.
Read more about Hunters leadership bid here.
Alvin Tedjo is prepared to ruffle some feathers.
Tedjo, one of six candidates gunning for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, punctuates discussion about his platform with more abstract ideas the mainstream political norm as he sees it, for example, versus what he calls the mainstream ethos. Those phrases sprung forward while discussing a chief component of Tedjos pitch to voters, which is a merging of Ontarios public and Catholic school systems.
Since I was born, in the 80s, this has been an issue. And every government, of every political stripe, has been afraid to talk about it because theyre afraid of political backlash, Tedjo claimed in a recent interview with iPolitics, discussing his bid for leader. Certainly Ive run into some people that said, well, I dont think this is a good idea, (but) most of those people are saying they dont think its a good idea politically. Theyre not saying they dont think its a good idea morally, ethically, or policy wise.
Tedjo cites aNovember poll from public opinion form Abacus Datato back his campaign pledge. The survey of 785 voting-aged Ontarians which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20 found 56 per cent support for merging the Catholic and public school systems in Ontario. One in four strongly supported the idea, and on the other side, one in 10 surveyed Ontarians were strongly opposed to it. The strongest opposition came, predictably, from Ontarios Catholic population, as 45 per cent of provincial Catholics opposed consolidation and 15 per cent said they were unsure. (Forty per cent of Catholics supported the idea.)
Despite pushback, though, it would be tricky to claim that Tedjo opposes Catholic education in Ontario wholesale; his children are currently enrolled in the system themselves. They have a great education. I love what theyre getting. But what theyre getting is exclusive to them, because a) theyre Catholic, and b) my wife has French language rights. So we had four times the amount of choices than any other family in Ontario, Tedjo said. I dont see how thats fair at all.
Read more about Tedjos leadership bid here.
The Ontario Liberal Party leadership convention is scheduled to take place March 6 and 7, 2020.
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