Fresh from his convincing weekend win, new Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca will be at the Ontario Legislature Monday as his small band of eight MPPs looks toward the 2022 election.
But the former cabinet minister will have to watch Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford from the sidelines of the visitors’ gallery.
That’s because Del Duca doesn’t have a seat in the house and has no plans to seek one before the next election unless his old Vaughan constituency opens up.
Instead, he will be busy criss-crossing the province to rebuild the party, raise money and recruit candidates in scores of ridings.
“The work begins in earnest Monday. We have 26 months until the next election campaign,” said Del Duca, who took most of Sunday to relax with his wife and two daughters after the gruelling leadership contest.
Ford’s Conservatives wasted no time attacking the new Liberal leader, unleashing a fundraising appeal that derided Del Duca as former premier Kathleen Wynne’s “right-hand man.”
“That’s the same Liberals that brought you skyrocketing hydro rates, out of control debt and deficits, a job-killing cap-and-trade carbon tax (and) sweetheart deals for Liberal insider friends,” said the PC email blast.
“Remember when Ontario closed the door on the Kathleen Wynne Liberals?” a female narrator intones in a 30-second video.
“Now, meet the new Ontario Liberals, where the new boss is the same as the old boss,” she continues.
“Ontario can’t afford a Del Duca-Wynne,” the narrator concludes.
Del Duca, who received almost 59 per cent of delegate votes in his first-ballot win Saturday, said he’s been bracing for the Tory onslaught.
“They’re not going to stop. That’s because they’re desperate, because the agenda they’re pursuing is reckless, it’s incompetent and their polling numbers reflect that,” he added.
Tory government House Leader Paul Calandra said it looks bad that the new Liberal chief is in no rush to win a seat.
“He talked about the rejuvenation of the party, but he doesn’t have the confidence to get back in the house,” Calandra told reporters.
“The Wynne-Del Duca government is not something that the people of Ontario look back on fondly,” he added. “That’s why they reduced them to seven seats. They had an opportunity here to move forward. They chose to go back.”
The Liberals will continue to be led in the house by MPP John Fraser (Ottawa South), the former interim leader. They gained an eighth seat in January when MPP Amanda Simard (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell), a former Tory, joined their ranks.
Simard had quit the governing party in protest of Ford’s cuts to French-language services.
Del Duca signalled he will be happy to fight the next election on the polarizing premier’s record, particularly given “the strikes and the chaos in public education.”
That was a reference to the rotating walkouts by Ontario’s four teachers’ unions, which have plunged the system into the most tumult since 1997 when Conservative Mike Harris was premier.
Mindful that promising to return peace and stability to public education helped former premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals defeat the Tories in 2003, Del Duca vowed things would “get back on track” in schools if he takes office.
But New Democrat MPP Taras Natyshak (Essex) said the Liberals have little credibility on education given McGuinty’s 2012 imposition of Bill 115, which forced a contract on teachers and was later overturned in court as unconstitutional.
“That was a government that waged war with teachers. Bill 115 is not so far in our memory … we don’t forget what they did to teachers, trampling on their Charter right to collective bargaining,” said Natyshak.
Del Duca has not been working full-time since his electoral defeat in 2018 and instead has concentrated on his leadership bid while teaching a course at York University on public-sector budgets.
His severance from six years in politics has long expired, leaving his wife Utilia Amaral, a consultant, to carry the family finances.
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Without a seat in the legislature, Del Duca is not earning an MPP’s base salary of $116,500 and it’s not clear if the Liberal party, still saddled with millions in debt from the last election, can afford to pay him.
“I’m going to support him through it … not just paying the bills,” Amaral told the Star in an interview. “The sacrifice sure is going to be worth it.”
The new leader is also going to have to introduce himself to Ontarians.
The latest Campaign Research poll for the Star found that 14 per cent of respondents approved of Del Duca while 20 per cent disapproved, for a net approval rating of -6 per cent. But 66 per cent of respondents said they didn’t know or weren’t sure, suggesting he is not well known yet.
In comparison, 26 per cent approved of Ford while 61 per cent disapproved, for a net approval rating of -35 per cent. Just 13 per cent had no opinion of Ford.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath had a 42 per cent approval rating and 30 per cent disapproval, for a net approval rating of +12 per cent, with 28 per cent of respondents unsure.
The same poll found the Tories were approved by 32 per cent of respondents, with the Liberals and NDP tied at 28 per cent each and the Greens at 10 per cent.
Campaign Research polled 1,144 people on last Wednesday and Thursday using Maru Blue’s online panel, an opt-in poll. For comparison purposes, a randomly selected sample of this size would have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Despite the uphill challenge, the weekend convention was a success for the previously moribund Liberals.
There were 2,500 supporters on hand Saturday at Mississauga’s International Centre when Del Duca easily triumphed over his closest rival, MPP Michael Coteau, who won just 17 per cent of the vote.
Former London candidate Kate Graham was third with 14 per cent ahead of MPP Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough-Guildwood) with 5.7 per cent. Ex-Oakville candidate Alvin Tedjo won 3.5 per cent and Ottawa lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth had 1.1 per cent.
The six leadership rivals shared the stage after Del Duca’s victory speech and each appealed for party unity ahead of an election campaign that begins in 26 months.
In the 124-member legislature, the Tories have 73 seats, including Speaker Ted Arnott, who does not caucus with the government, while the New Democrats have 40. There are two former Tories who sit as Independents and one Green.
The eight seats held by the Liberals leaves them four shy of the 12-MPP threshold needed for official status in the house, which gives more public funding for research and staff, among other privileges.
Del Duca said he would only run in a byelection if Tory Michael Tibollo, the junior health minister who defeated him in Vaughan-Woodbridge in 2018, steps down.
While Ford has demoted Tibollo in each of his two cabinet shuffles — in November 2018 and again last June — there are no indications the first-term MPP has any plans to quit and force a byelection.
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