On­tario Lib­er­als should start re­build­ing now

The London Free Press - - COMMENT - Mo­hammed Adam is an Ot­tawa writer. MO­HAMMED ADAM

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.

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