Defeated and indebted, the once-mighty Liberals are at their lowest point in a generation.
Reunited for their first post-election huddle last weekend, they were far from united. Still feeling the anger from voters, Liberals turned the heat on themselves.
In a fading but affordable university dormitory, munching on box lunches, musing about the good old days — now downgraded to the bad old days — they struggled with key questions.
Where do they go from here — toward the centre, or stay where they are on the centre-left?
Who is the leader to take them forward, whichever direction they choose?
What will it take to pay down nearly $10 million in debt, bankroll a leadership race, and conserve cash to fight the next election against an empowered Progressive Conservative government and a revitalized NDP opposition?
When exactly do they start, given that fundraising can’t wait?
The cash flow has dried up, but the bloodletting hasn’t. Yet even if the Liberal apparatus is on life support, there were few apparent signs of rigor mortis at this post mortem, as demonstrated by the dissent.
Where typically a provincial council meeting would attract fewer than 200 delegates, an unexpected (and unprecedented) 750 Liberal diehards came from across the province. They need to talk, wag fingers and listen up.
The weekend encounter session was as much about psychotherapy as political strategy. Going forward, the challenge for Ontario’s Liberals is not just the timing, but the sequencing.
One of the first steps for a party toppled from power is to get its policy bearings back. Yet policy prescriptions may not be a panacea for what ails the Ontario Liberals: Kathleen Wynne lost the election not so much because her party was out of ideas as out of time — losing steam and lacking staying power.
After 15 years in power, accumulating baggage and barnacles, Liberals knew that Ontarians had had enough. Rightly or wrongly, Wynne sought votes by veering further left, piling on ambitious social programs — from child care to pharmacare and mental health care. By contrast, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won far more votes with a paucity of policy, backed by a vow to dismantle existing Liberal programs.
As Interim Leader John Fraser told delegates on the weekend, voters “wanted change … they put us in the penalty box.” Traditionally, that works miracles, allowing a penalized party to bide its time and rethink policy until the governing party trades places with it.
Beyond navigating policy, though, the party has more pressing challenges. Its fundraising machinery and agility lag well behind that of the rival PCs, and even the NDP. For too long, the Liberals relied on corporate fat cats to pay their way, neglecting small contributions from individual donors.
With campaign finance reforms enacted by Wynne, business and union money is now banned. By all accounts, Liberal coffers are bare — and without a leader in place, and a policy vision in sight, donations have dried up. If Ford fulfils his vow to remove per-vote subsidies for parties, the Liberals will be in even worse shape.
Which raises the last — and perhaps first — question for Liberals: Who will lead them out of the wilderness, and when?
The conventional wisdom is that the next Liberal leadership convention must wait until after next October’s federal election, pushing off the race until 2020. But as the experience of the federal New Democrats has demonstrated, lingering too long with an interim leader can be fatal for fundraising, discipline, and policy development. Can Ontario’s Liberals afford so long a limbo?
Surviving cabinet ministers Michael Coteau and Mitzie Hunter were quietly working the hallways, as were defeated ministers Steven Del Duca and Yasir Naqvi, along with Sandra Pupatello, who narrowly lost the 2013 leadership race to Wynne. Who has the ambition and stamina — whether from inside or outside the party — to take on a thankless task that could require many years, heartbreaks and elections to reach fruition?
For now, party activists have seen the enemy: Not just their opponents in the Ford government, but their own Liberal legacy that dragged them down in the last election.
Left unspoken at the convention was another rival to the left — the New Democratic Party that bested them in 2018, after being decimated by Wynne in 2014. For all the shots that Fraser took at the Progressive Conservatives, he said nary a word about the New Democrats in his keynote address, highlighting a new challenge for the Liberals.
How do they outflank the left while moving back to the centre? That Fraser declined to even address the NDP threat suggests the party’s reorientation remains a work in progress — work, in fact, that has barely begun.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn