Ontario’s moribund Liberals will elect a new leader on March 7.
But first party members have to determine the method for selecting a chief to lead them into the 2022 election against Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
Some 1,000 Liberal delegates gather this weekend at the International Centre in Mississauga for their first annual general meeting since being dethroned by Ford’s Conservatives one year ago Friday.
At the top of the agenda Saturday is discussion of constitutional amendments to change their leadership contests from a traditional delegated conventions to a one-member-one-vote affair similar to how the Tories and other parties choose their leaders.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said there is a passionate debate going on among Liberals.
“While we don’t know the mechanism the party will use to deliver that leader … we’ve got ourselves a due date,” said Fraser, one of just seven Grits elected to the 124-member house last June.
The Ottawa South MPP, who is remaining agnostic on the issue, said it’s “one of the important decisions we’ll make this weekend.”
Backers of one-member-one-vote argue it is more democratic than relying upon party insiders to pick a leader — and could be an effective way to attract new members.
Opponents counter that it exposes the party to a takeover from anyone who can sell enough $20 memberships and warn recent Conservative leaderships could be seen as cautionary tales.
That’s because Ford won last year — and his predecessor, Patrick Brown, in 2015 — despite Christine Elliott, who is now health minister, being the PC establishment choice in both races.
While any change would require two-thirds support from Liberal attendees, who will vote on it Saturday morning, there is significant support for the change.
The party that was in power under premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne from 2003 until 2018, has more challenges than just how to choose a new leader.
Two of the seven MPPs — Nathalie Des Rosier (Ottawa-Vanier) and Marie-France Lalonde (Orleans) — are planning to leave provincial politics this summer meaning the cash-strapped Liberals will have to contest two byelections next year.
“We’ve been working really hard this year, we put our financial house in order at the party,” said Fraser.
The Liberals are not a recognized party in the legislature and do not receive funding for researchers and additional staff because the threshold for official status was recently raised to 12 MPPs from eight.
But thanks mostly to Ford’s declining popularity in polls, the Liberals have surged in recent public-opinion surveys.
“I have to give Doug Ford credit, the one thing he has done better than any premier before him — faster than anyone could have imagined — is turn the people of Ontario against his government,” said Fraser.
“To the point where a party with seven seats, a party with a temporary leader … has been beating him in the polls,” he said.
“And, yes, three years is a long time in Ontario politics and, yes, the only poll that matters is in 2022.”
Liberals are optimistic a spirited leadership race will generate further interest.
So far, three hopefuls have declared their intentions of running: former transportation minister Steven Del Duca, the acknowledged front-runner; MPP Michael Coteau (Don Valley East), a former social services minister; and Alvin Tedjo, a former Liberal candidate in Oakville North-Burlington.
MPP Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough-Guildwood), a former education minister, is also weighing a leadership bid.
Del Duca said Friday night he would “be officially registering with Elections Ontario as a leadership contestant early next week,” making him first out of the gate.
Spending limits and entry fees for the contest have yet to be determined.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie