Ontario Liberals put their rebuilding to the test after 2018 election drubbing

·6 min read

TORONTO — Four years ago the Ontario Liberals held a majority government and today they are not-so-affectionately dubbed "the minivan party," holding so few seats that they could carpool to a caucus meeting.

They have spent the time since their electoral drubbing in 2018 trying to rebuild, though without the benefit of much of their powerhouse machinery of old. Polls suggest they may not be entirely out of the running, but going from seven seats to government is a tall order.

Leader Steven Del Duca was elected by members days before the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 and the Liberals say he has spent the past two years listening to Ontarians, since they identify a failure to do that as a key reason for their 2018 loss.

Del Duca not holding a seat in the legislature has also allowed him to put a lot of energy into candidate recruitment.

"We started to think about, because we were obviously coming in...from a very behind position, what can we do that can put us in a better position? And we focused in on team," campaign director Christine McMillan said in an interview.

The candidates themselves had a large hand in platform development, partly because the party was operating on a skeleton staff, but also to take advantage of their experience, McMillan said. Their roster includes a personal support worker, an ER doctor, a hospital CEO, and a well-known mayor.

Rob Gilmour, a strategist and former Progressive Conservative staffer, said the Liberals have put together an impressive team. He noted by way of disclosure that McMillan is a partner at Crestview Strategy, the firm at which he is a vice president – "I think she's wonderful. Am I going to vote for her? No, absolutely not."

"I’ve been impressed with the Liberal party and the efforts they've put forward to recruit really interesting, really strong, really diverse candidates from across all parts of Ontario," Gilmour said.

"It is clear to me that they are serious about rebuilding their party and rebuilding their brand. But it's also clear to me that they need to be serious about rebuilding their party and rebuilding their brand, because there's a reason they only won seven seats in 2018."

Skyrocketing hydro prices became a flashpoint of anger against the 15-year-old Liberal government, with then-premier Kathleen Wynne admitting she didn't pay close enough attention to the impacts their attempts to make the electricity system greener had on people's wallets.

They also angered progressive voters with the partial sale of Hydro One and angered the business community by moving quickly on increasing the minimum wage.

As the Liberals look to overcome any lingering anger from back then, they see their fresh slate of candidates as a key to success. But how does a party starting out so far behind define success?

Anna Esselment, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said she doesn't believe the Liberals are banking on forming government this time.

"I imagine they are looking two elections out," she said. "They'll have goals for this spring that will build to their goals for 2026. So what I would imagine, in the state that they're in now, is that their first goal would be to achieve official party status."

Their seven-seat caucus was just one shy of official party status – a recognition by the legislature that allows them more resources – but the Progressive Conservative government has since boosted the threshold from eight to 12.

A minority government is not impossible, said Andrew Steele, a strategist and former top Liberal staffer, but most Liberals likely have a balanced set of expectations.

"Finishing in a second-place position is a real accomplishment to build on," said Steele, a vice president at the firm StrategyCorp.

"I think there's no number that people are going to hold anyone accountable to. It's more a question of can we recover party status and the resources that go along with that? Did we comport ourselves well and define ourselves as the real opposition to Doug Ford?"

Both the NDP and the Liberals are jockeying for the anti-Ford vote, positioning themselves as the only party that can defeat him. The NDP note the Liberals' vastly diminished footprint compared to their own 39-seat caucus as evidence they can deliver. The Liberals say that, historically, they are the ones who defeat conservatives.

During the last election, polling suggested the NDP was in the lead for a time, before the Progressive Conservatives swept to a large majority, and that was when the Liberals were at their weakest, Steele noted.

"There's a bit of a ceiling on the NDP support that makes it really hard for them to win an election in Ontario," he said.

"It has to be a very peculiar set of splits for them to win, whereas the Liberals are a more viable big tent for the not-Doug-Ford vote to coalesce around. So...by winning that progressive primary first, that allows them to be seen as the real opposition to Doug Ford, and then move into a position of being seen not just as the alternative, but as the party that can do a better job of governance."

McMillan said voters shouldn't expect to hear the Liberals talk much about NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"(It will be) Doug Ford, full stop. It'll all be conservative," she said. "Our message to voters is it's a choice between Conservatives and Liberals."

Esselment said the Liberals aren't starting from scratch in that regard.

"They're not normally a third party, and voters are certainly used to voting Liberal," she said. "So I think in that sense, there's going to have to be a bit of that message of: We are rightfully the ones that should be either in government or in the Opposition benches."

Polling suggests the "progressive primary" is so far going well for the Liberals, with two recent polls putting them ahead of the NDP. But broadly positive polling doesn't necessarily translate into seats, and with relatively diminished resources the Liberals will have to focus their efforts.

The campaign is likely to spend a lot of time in the Greater Toronto Area, seeking to regain lost ground in the vote-rich and often Liberal-friendly regions.

"The GTA is a target-rich environment for seats and I think election night will come down to – both by way of a majority or minority and also who does end up being premier – the story will be told primarily in Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough," Gilmour said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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