Chairman's Desk

One member, one vote won’t save Ontario Liberal Party

The party desperately needs a winning message, a big idea that animates voters, especially young voters.

Its funny how some things take on the ability to solve all kinds of problems. The Ontario Liberal Party’s decision to adopt a one-member-one-vote system is one of those things.

Talking to Liberals, one member, one vote will single-handedly usher in an electrifying new era for their party. Like a snake shedding its worn skin, it will allow the Liberals to emerge as an exciting and vibrant new player in provincial politics. It will end the insularity that has plagued them for years. And, oh, it will allow its members to feel optimistic and hopeful about their future.

Wow, that’s a lot of heavy lifting for one procedural amendment.

Well, at the risk of being a skunk at a garden party, I don’t think this is going to have the intended effect. In fact, I think there is a good chance it will come back and bite them in the you-know-what (this is a family newspaper, after all).

Here’s why.

The party desperately needs a winning message, a big idea that animates voters, especially young voters. Millennials and Gen Z represent an increasingly significant voting bloc. Those voters are looking for policies and ideas that excite them. That hold the promise for a better life for them. For their families. For those around them. For the planet.

And a new voting system isn’t an idea those voters are looking for. And in any case, the Liberals are late to the party. This isn’t a new idea; every one of their major competitors beat them to the punch.

But more than that, this system is nothing but trouble for centrist parties. Whilst at first glance it seems to be more inclusive and welcoming — and in many ways it is — on second and third glance, it causes more problems than it solves.

That’s because the one-member-one-vote systems blows open the door to outside activist movements and special interest groups who have no connection to the party or to its long-term interests.

So while one-member-one-vote will likely break up the current insider hegemony that has not served the party well, it increases the risk that those running to lead the party will be drawn to proposing policy options that are designed to attract narrow segments of the voter base.

Under the new rules, while this may be an effective — even a winning — campaign strategy, it’s not likely to be in the best long-term interests of a party that has “centrist” as core to its DNA.

Determined to win, the urge to think short-term will be hard for candidates to resist. But there’s nothing short-term about the challenge the party faces. And therein lies the tension between the needs of the party and the needs of the campaigns of those who seek to lead it.

Given that, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible and given populist, grassroots activism is how the game is played nowadays, the shift may have been inevitable. But it won’t alone move the needle, and will put the Liberals’ centrist, moderate credentials to the test.

I have not only battled the Grits many times, I’ve lost to them more times than I care to recount and I know the party is at its most formidable when it presents voters with a plan that couples economic prosperity with a view of social progressivism.

Striking that balance just got harder.

The last federal Conservative race was a bitter one and one candidate was disqualified for improper campaigning. In British Columbia, the most recent NDP leadership race saw an outsider activist candidate eventually disqualified. The Ontario Liberal’s brand can hardly afford to take such hits.

All that said, the leadership race has shown some signs of life with several credible candidates rumoured to be about to jump in. Only time will tell if any of them bring forward that audacious, inspiring idea that will turn the party’s fortunes around.


This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 12, 2023.