Ontario Liberals should start rebuilding now
The provincial Liberal brand has been damaged by last week’s crushing election defeat, but as the party members turn their attention to rebuilding and winning back people’s trust, the good news is the damage need not be terminal. Parties can come back from near-death, as the federal Liberals showed when they rose from third-party status in 2011 to a huge majority in 2015.
Much has been made of the Liberals’ loss of official party status in the legislature, and going from 55 to seven seats is certainly humiliating. They’ll have no funds to pay staff or do research and can speak in the legislature only at the pleasure of the Speaker. The party’s profile and work in the legislature will no doubt suffer.
But here’s a newsflash: Parties and their leaders don’t win elections on the strength of masterful performances in parliament; just ask the federal NDP under Tom Mulcair. Parties win by connecting with people. As the Liberals begin the long and painful journey back from the wilderness, the loss of official party status could be a blessing in disguise.
With Doug Ford buttressed by a commanding majority, being the official opposition could be a fruitless exercise — and the frustration could be even bigger for a third party with no standing. Better for the Liberals to leave the task of governance to the PCs and opposition to the NDP, and concentrate on rebuilding. Unencumbered by the day-to-day demands of the legislature, Liberals could focus singlemindedly on renewal. And they have four years to get it right.
The first task is to find a new permanent leader — not just any leader but a dynamic one to help redefine the party and reclaim the centre.
That task is complicated by the slim pickings in the legislature. The big hitters considered potential leadership candidates, such as former attorney general and Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi and former finance minister Charles Sousa, were defeated. There remain at Queen’s Park several former cabinet ministers: Nathalie Des Rosiers and Marie-France Lalonde, Michael Coteau, Mitzie Hunter and Micahel Gravelle as well as former Dalton McGuinty assistant John Fraser.
These MPPs are not household names, although Hunter and Coteau have some profile in Toronto, and Des Rosiers is a former dean of law at the University of Ottawa. On Wednesday, Fraser appeared to have the backing of the small caucus to take over as interim leader.
It may be too early to know if any of these MPPs would run for the permanent leadership. Naqvi and Sousa are now something of the walking wounded. But while defeat may have darkened their shine, it may not necessarily be a fatal blow. They have big profiles in the party.
Still, Liberals will have to cast the net wide for fresh blood and ideas. In her concession speech, Kathleen Wynne spoke of passing the torch to a new generation, and that may well be what the party needs.
Devastating as it was, the Liberal defeat would not have come as a surprise to the party. The writing had long been on the wall, and Wynne acknowledged it, perhaps too late. Parties that stay long in power become arrogant, lose sight of their goals and lose touch. Political dynasties do have a shelf life, and after 15 years of Grits in power, Ontarians just got tired of them.
The Liberals can’t just sit there feeling sorry for themselves or engaging in finger-pointing. The party overstayed its welcome and no change in leadership or philosophy would have saved it. The road to renewal starts with a show of humility, acknowledging mistakes, finding a new leader, a new purpose and plotting a new direction.
Getting back into the good graces of voters is going to be hard, but not impossible.