Ontario Liberals are missing a crucial opportunity on road to renewal

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 2, 2020.

Two political debates in two countries, What a striking study in contrasts.

The first was the Democratic debate in Las Vegas. I wrote last week how Bloomberg’s entrance to the ring has revitalized the primary race, and how his first debate was about worthy of Vegas. Americans, it seems, agreed. The broadcast smashed ratings records with 19.7 million viewers, more than watched the Grammys or Golden Globes.

The second was the Ontario Liberal leadership “debate” on TVO – though I use the term loosely for it was really more like a kabuki performance of a debate. On both stages stood six candidates, but beyond that the two events could not have been more different.

The reason the OLP debate was such a farce is that it was over before it started.

By debate night, Steven Del Duca already had the race sewn up. Earlier this month, it was announced that he had accumulated an insurmountable lead of 62.5 per cent of delegates.

In the shadow of a national election, railway blockades and COVID-19 stories, the race that will lead to this coronation was generally a tepid and uninspiring affair, one now destined to end in a sad, forgotten convention centre when Liberals convene on March 7.

For a party deep in the wilderness and arguably in the grips of an identity crisis, a coronation is neither productive nor helpful. Sure, the Democratic primary looks messy, but at least it’s a real contest of real ideas. Is the Democratic Party a party of the left that will champion expensive and ambitious social programs? Or is it a party of the centre that will offer a home to disaffected Republicans?

The Ontario Liberals missed an important, perhaps even critical, opportunity on the road to renewal by avoiding a similar clash of visons and ideas. By falling in line, the Liberals have elected to carry on the legacy of the previous government, in which Del Duca served, most memorably as Minister of Transportation.

What many missed is the prize just might be worth winning after all. For a broke party without even official status, the Liberals were polling as high as 33 per cent in mid-January, narrowly besting the sitting government. If they could get the party’s act together – a tall but not impossible order — the next leader stands a chance of becoming premier. And yet the race failed to attract any of the rumoured heavyweights, so here we are.

Already, the PC party has been conducting focus groups about their presumptive challenger. These groups were reported to have been inconclusive. “Nobody knew who the hell he was,” as one source summed it up to the Star. That may very well be the appeal. Either way, the Liberals are now preparing to anoint a blank slate.

But there are termites in the Liberal house. When a pollster asked voters which party they would vote for on a generic ballot, the Liberals beat the PCs by six points. But when they asked the same question with leaders’ names attached, Del Duca’s Liberals lost to Doug Ford’s PCs – by seven points.

While it’s early days, and that’s only a single poll, the results of Thursday’s byelections were instructive. That said, it seems clear Ontario voters are not exactly in the grip of Del Duca-mania.

With the OLP race now a foregone conclusion, I have watched with interest as Bernie Sanders has pulled ahead in the Democratic primary. His rise has caused much consternation among the party’s establishment, who worry he may well become their Jeremy Corbyn – a progressive albatross around the necks of candidates all the way down the ballot.

In truth, there’s a strong case to be made for Bernie’s electability. In head-to-head national polling Sanders consistently tops Trump by a small but meaningful margin.

And besides, imagine if the Democrats had conducted their race with the same attitude as the OLP: They would have nominated former vice-president Joe Biden and sleepwalked into a second Trump term.

It seems Democrats remember the dangers of their 2016 coronation. Time will tell if the Liberal one works out any better.

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