Two decades after Dalton McGuinty brought the Ontario Liberals to power and launched a 15-year dynasty, the Grits are in the pits.
The Liberals have lost back-to-back bad elections to Prime Minister Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, twice failing to win even enough seats for official party status in the legislature.
A recent autopsy of the disastrous June 2 campaign found a litany of systemic problems ranging from a shortage of money and volunteers to a lack of coherent policies.
But amid the smoking ruins, there are flickering hopes for a party that ruled Ontario from 2003 to 2018.
The fledgling leadership race is generating buzz and enthusiasm that have been lacking in liberal circles for years.
In stark contrast to the official opposition New Democrats, whose incoming leader Marit Stiles will be hailed within two weeks after no challenger emerges, there are at least four possible contenders for Grit’s leadership.
Last week the Star interviewed the four likely candidates who are actively courting Liberals across the province.
Mitzie Hunter, 51, (Scarborough-Guildwood) and Ted Hsu, 58, (Kingston and the Islands) MPs, as well as Yasir Naqvi, 49, (Ottawa Centre) and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, 38, (Beaches-East) MPs York) are exploring leadership offers.
Others are rumored to be interested (there’s a quiet move to recruit Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, a former Liberal MP), but only these four are aggressively pushing their candidacies.
It is shaping up to be a diverse field, well educated and experienced:
- Hunter, who immigrated from Jamaica as a child, has an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and was executive director of CivicAction, a position at the influential nonpartisan organization formerly held by Toronto Mayor John Tory, and former PC cabinet minister Rod. Phillips. She was Minister of Education and has been a deputy since 2013.
- Naqvi, who moved from Pakistan as a teenager, is a lawyer with degrees from McMaster, Carleton and the University of Ottawa. She served as attorney general, solicitor general and labor minister, was president of the Ontario Liberals, and oversaw her run for leadership in 2013.
- Hsu, who was born in the US and came to Kingston as a baby, has a PhD in physics from Princeton University. He was named Maclean’s magazine’s 2013 ‘MP of the Year’ as Best Constituent Representation MP and is one of four newly elected Liberal MPPs in Queen’s Park.
- Erskine-Smith, born in Toronto, is an Oxford University-educated lawyer who has worked at a Bay Street law firm and with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. First elected in 2015, she has won plaudits in Ottawa for being an independent-minded MP who is not afraid to criticize the Trudeau government.
While the four will await the rules and deadlines for the leadership contest before formally launching the campaigns, they are already touring Ontario to build support.
“I am on a listening tour,” said Naqvi, a former attorney general who lost his provincial seat in the 2018 election, only to win the federal election three years later.
As party chairman a decade ago, he said it is sobering to see the state of the organization and a reminder that the Liberals “began to take quite a lot for granted” at the end of his 15 years in government.
“There is no central party, so to speak. I am concerned to see the health of the local riding associations. The party infrastructure is not as strong as it used to be,” Naqvi said of their meetings in church basements and cafes.
“It’s not just a matter of renovation anymore, we need a rebuild,” he said.
“But I find it exciting to see traditional liberals still full of energy. Our focus has to be on Ontarians and making it easier for people to live their lives.”
Hsu, who resigned from federal politics in 2015 only to jump into Queen’s Park last June, said he was “a bit surprised by the state of riding associations and the lack of organization in some parts of the province.”
“Probably a third of them are inactive or only exist on paper. Therefore, the rebuilding of the riding associations and the rebuilding of the party infrastructure is essential,” he said.
Erskine-Smith said she sees “parallels” with the challenges the federal Liberals faced after they lost to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2006, ending more than a dozen years in power.
The national party endured years of soul-searching, losing elections under the uninspiring leadership of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff in 2008 and 2011, before a fresh-faced dynamo named Justin Trudeau led them back.
“There is certainly a hunger for change (provincially) and that will include an element of generational change,” Erskine-Smith said, recalling the hard work it took for federal Liberals to rejuvenate in order to compete with the Tories and New Democrats.
“I am absolutely convinced that helping the provincial Liberal Party to renew and rebuild is where I can make the biggest contribution,” said the Beaches-East York MP.
Both he and Hsu say their lack of connection to the McGuinty administrations or her successor Kathleen Wynne will be to the advantage of some voters in 2026.
“I have no baggage,” Erskine-Smith said, adding that she wants a “serious” party that brings substantial and consequential change.
Hsu echoed that.saying that it “represents a new beginning” for liberals and may bring a fresh perspective.
“Unfortunately, at the last election, there was still an association with (then leader) Steven Del Duca as a former minister in Prime Minister Kathleen Wynne’s government. I don’t have that connection,” he said.
Hunter and Naqvi are former members of Wynne’s cabinet. But no one sees it as a negative.
“The fact is that the Liberal government did a lot of good things, from full-day kindergarten to phasing out coal (combustion-powered generation) and taking action on the environment,” Naqvi insisted.
“Doug Ford has been creating chaos in healthcare and chaos in education. Ontarians tell us the system is not there for them,” he said.
Hunter, who finished fourth in the 2020 leadership contest that chose Del Duca, stressed that “experience counts” when it comes to bolstering public services.
“We have to fight for Ontarians, I’m really sorry to the core. I know we can do better as a province,” he said, wryly noting that his electoral record is spotless.
“I have won four elections in a row, including the last two. The members know what I bring.”
In a charge led by Hunter’s riding association four years ago, the Liberals appear set to abandon traditional delegate leadership elections, which favor party members.
Instead, they are expected to opt for a one member, one vote, leadership-weighted system so that rural constituencies have as much influence as those in more populous urban areas, similar to how the Tories choose their leaders.
“We need to change the way we select our leader, we need to make sure our rank and file members have a voice,” Hunter said.
His three possible rivals agree and Liberal members will vote on the amendment at the party’s annual general meeting in Hamilton on March 3-5.
(Reform was favored by 57 percent in 2019, down from the 66 percent needed for a constitutional change, which is why former leader Del Duca was elected at a delegate convention in 2020.)
Meanwhile, the ruling Conservatives are aware of the electoral threat a revived Liberal party could pose.
That is one of the reasons why Ford himself is wary of the Grits — routinely fighting with his little caucus in the legislature’s daily question period while ignoring the official opposition NDP queries addressed to him.
The prime minister, a numbers buff who pores over polling data, is aware that the Liberals actually received slightly more of the popular vote than the New Democrats last June, and could easily rise again in 2026.
It was only thanks to the whims of the first-past-the-post system and the NDP’s more concentrated vote that the party won 31 seats to the Grits’ eight, while Ford’s Tories won 83. (Twelve is the threshold for official party status, guaranteeing more funding for staff and a greater role in the legislative process).
“I think we can win again (in 2026),” said a senior Conservative, speaking confidentially to discuss strategy. “But the next prime minister (thereafter) will be a Liberal, not a New Democrat.”
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