To defeat a majority government from its current third place will require Liberals to build and cultivate a groundswell, a movement, for change.
A resounding mandate in one of the nation’s largest municipalities — soon to obtain its long-sought and much-cherished independence.
An enviable electoral seat in Ottawa Centre. The possibility of a cabinet posting for an experienced hand.
A promising young career on the Hill. The chance to rise the ranks of the governing party.
All this. And more. Ready to be sacrificed for the chance to lead … what?
A powerhouse university? A cushy private sector gig?
No. Quite the opposite, actually.
All this could or will be forfeited for a shot to become the leader of the Ontario Liberal party. Third place. Eight seats (one now in jeopardy). Crushed. Not even recognized as a party in the Legislature.
Yes, that party.
Respectively, these are the bios of Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi and Beaches-East York MP Nate Erskine-Smith. But of course, there will be but more contenders. Heck, Mike Schreiner almost abandoned his own party for the opportunity.
So, what gives?
More than blind self-belief, something else motivates this interest — a grasp of history. The candidates lining up are experienced political actors capable of divining the political winds. And, they like what they see for the next provincial election in 2026.
Here’s one reason. It’s practically political law that Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill are never occupied by the same political family for very long. Myriad theories try to explain. I won’t. I’ll simply say that history shows Ontarians are uncomfortable with the same cast of characters in Ottawa and Toronto at the same time.
And so, the contenders for the Ontario Liberal leadership are sensing the winds of change, banking that if and when Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre is elected PM, Ontarians will be eager to shake Queen’s Park up.
Of course, it would be foolish for the Liberals to place their hopes in vague historical trends. Rules, after all, are for breaking. And the task before them, defeating a majority government from their current third place, is as vast as it is difficult. No question, it will require Liberals to build and cultivate a groundswell, a movement, for change.
So can they do it? For my money, it will come down to three things.
First, they’ll need a convincing narrative that helps advance the idea that change is desperately needed. On the federal scene, Poilievre has been convincing voters that Canada is broken, in need of a repair only he can make. But here’s the problem: in dealing with the exact same economy and cost of living crisis, no provincial adversary of Premier Doug Ford has been able to effectively paint the same picture.
Clearly, to win in 2026, the Ontario Liberals will need to do just that. And I’m not sure that’s achievable, frankly.
Second, they’ll need to show their party represents that change. And that requires an energetic, contentious, leadership contest.
I wrote after Erin O’Toole’s defeat that the federal Conservative party was victim of its own relative success in avoiding electoral catastrophe, that narrow losses to Trudeau occasioned painkillers when a more complicated surgery was necessary.
The Ontario Liberals can have no such illusions. Yet again in third place, a full-scale treatment on the party’s identity is plainly necessary. With Mayor Crombie calling for a move to the centre-right, Nate Erskine-Smith responding with calls for more left-wing policies, and Yasir Naqvi denying the left/right debate altogether and instead calling for a back-to-basics approach, there are promising signs this race will be the required hotly contested battle of ideas.
Finally, they’ll — of course — require a candidate who captures the electorate’s imagination. That means someone more than just an opportunist who likes the way the winds are blowing, but a leader who sees the Liberal’s third-party status as a luxury and who is willing to put in the hard work necessary to rebuild and redefine it.
Anything less and the patient is destined for defeat.
This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 28, 2023.