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Andrew Tumilty: For the Ontario Liberals, survival starts with a plan ... and humility
A single-digit seat count in 2018 might have been a fluke. Two elections in a row makes it a message.
By: Andrew Tumilty
My first instinct for the headline of a post-election column on the Ontario Liberal Party was: “What. The. Actual. Fuck.”
After some sober second thought — literally sober, since I had begun making the notes that became this column after a couple of beers on election night — I thought better of that precise use of words. And now, the numbing buzz is gone, the hangover has resolved itself, and the time for some hard truths about the future has come.
Here is the first truth: if the Ontario Liberal Party endures another defeat that sees it fail to at least reach party status, it could well be the party’s last election, period.
Before we talk about solutions to avoid that, let’s dismiss a temptation that many are already indulging. The path forward is not some merger of the non-conservative parties. The electoral map of Ontario means the most likely outcome of an NDP and Liberal merger is unfettered wins for the Progressive Conservatives. There are too many places in northern and southwestern Ontario where a merger would push NDP voters to the PCs, or move lowercase-l liberals in cities and suburbs to vote PC, if the Liberals are seen to be abandoning them for the NDP.
With that temptation covered, let us move to redemption.
Resurrecting the party starts with a new leader. The operative word here is “new,” and everything about Steven Del Duca’s eventual successor should demonstrate a break with the Liberal party’s past. The new leader should be an obvious and clear contrast not only with Premier Doug Ford, but with the 15 years of Liberal governments that preceded him.
The new leader must be someone who reflects the diversity of Ontario that the party loves to talk about, but from outside its existing power base. Choosing Mitzie Hunter as interim leader would be a good signal that the party is shifting. Electing her to the job permanently risks continuing to be perceived by voters, and portrayed by opponents, as the same party the electorate has thoroughly rejected twice now.
The process of choosing the new leader must change as well. Switching from a delegated convention to a “one member, one vote” model would have two immediate benefits. The race becomes more accessible to those outside the existing party structures, and it would force candidates to demonstrate the ability to create genuine enthusiasm and excitement for their campaign.
A leader who can garner attention and deliver inspiration is going to be essential in the next campaign to get voters who left the Liberals, and those who just stayed home, back at the ballot box.
In the campaign that just was, the Liberals put forward a comprehensive range of interesting proposals that covered a wide swath of public policy. In the next election, the Liberals need to be more focused on ensuring their own survival over presenting a masterclass in public policy.
Think of a restaurant with an extensive menu where there’s lots to choose from, but everything is just okay. Now think about the times you may have eaten somewhere with a small, one-page menu, and excellent food. Which one were you dying to go back to?
As long as people keep having kids and keep getting sick, health care and education will be top issues in the province for the foreseeable future. The economy may not be a viable issue in four years for Liberals, but people will still care if there aren't enough nurses in their hospital or too many students in their kids’ classrooms.
Every question in the legislature, every talking point in every scrum, and every press release from the party should bring the issue of the day back to health care and education. This is risky as Liberal credibility on those two issues has taken a rough ride over the course of the last four years, but there are benefits that can outweigh those risks.
On the state of long-term care and schools during the pandemic, neither Doug Ford or Andrea Horwath was shy about pointing to the Liberals as the root case for the problems inherent in both. Still, talking about health care and education would let Liberals demonstrate they are willing to be honest about their own shortcomings in the past, while focusing on issues where they still likely have a perceived advantage over any Progressive Conservative government.
Owning their own failings on health care and education would also help the Liberals learn (and show) a little humility and use it to set their goals for the next election. A single-digit seat count in 2018 might have been a fluke. Two elections in a row makes it a message. Instead of setting a goal of forming a government in 2026, start with returning to party status. Show the voters the party is happy for whatever trust they are willing to give, and will work hard to build more.
The Liberals need a long view if they want to return to government. If they take the temptation to pursue quick fixes, then the time they have left as a viable electoral alternative may be very short indeed.
Andrew Tumilty has crafted strategic communications and advice for local Liberal candidates and central party campaigns. He is a senior consultant for strategic communications and issues management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty
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