Confirming this week that he will no longer serve as the Ontario Liberals’ campaign co-chair, Greg Sorbara painted it as a matter of renewal for a party that has been in power nearly a decade. It’s time, he suggested, for a “new cast of characters” to seize the reins.
There’s an element of truth to that, and it was one of the underlying premises of Kathleen Wynne’s leadership victory this winter. But as the Liberals face the prospect of a spring or summer election, behind-the-scenes turnover has at least temporarily eroded one of their big advantages over their opponents.
In the last couple of elections under Dalton McGuinty’s leadership, a well-oiled machine allowed the Liberals to run smoother and more professional campaigns than the Progressive Conservatives or the New Democrats. Now, they might actually be less organizationally ready for an election than those other parties, and are sufficiently in flux that it could give the opposition added incentive to bring down the government this spring.
The changes go far beyond Mr. Sorbara – whose contributions to recent campaigns were mostly recruiting candidates, offering advice and boosting morale – and into the folks who ran day-to-day operations and were ultimately responsible for most strategic decisions.
Nobody played a more important role in Mr. McGuinty’s victories than Don Guy, who could rankle fellow Liberals between elections, but developed an almost legendary reputation for his work as campaign manager. Although he could yet return to the picture, he almost certainly wouldn’t play a central role in a campaign in the next few months, as evidenced by his commitment to help Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberals with their uphill re-election efforts.
Mr. Guy’s second-in-command, Laura Miller, was seen by some to be a potential successor to him – in part because she was reputed to be the only one who spoke his cryptic language, and thus understood how his decisions were made. But she, too, has decamped to B.C., and is even less likely to be imminently drawn back to Ontario.
If there were an election in the next few months, sources say, that would leave Tom Allison serving as campaign manager. Mr. Allison directed Ms. Wynne’s successful leadership effort, and is recognized as one of his party’s best organizers; he is also well-liked by Liberals, having masterminded the charm offensive that helped bring the new Premier to office. But he has little experience running general election campaigns, and making the big-picture decisions that come with them.
Nor does he have a whole lot of time to learn. While both the Tories’ and the NDP’s campaign managers are working full time on election preparations, Mr. Allison is working in a senior operational role in the Premier’s Office.
Senior Liberals are quick to counter that Mr. Allison would have plenty of support from a party infrastructure they’re rapidly rebuilding. That includes the newly minted campaign co-chairs, Health Minister Deb Matthews and backroom veteran Tim Murphy, who are expected to offer strategic guidance.
The same goes for Andrew Bevan, the Premier’s principal secretary and one of her long-time confidants, who complemented Mr. Allison in a policy role during the leadership race. And there’s some hope that younger staffers and volunteers who rose to the fore during that campaign, working for Ms. Wynne or for other candidates, will be ready to step up during a general election.
The Liberals need the new cast of characters to grow and mesh together more quickly than teams around new leaders typically do. Although the circumstances were different, it’s worth remembering that Mr. Guy and others required two elections to find their groove and get Mr. McGuinty into the Premier’s office – and they had more time to prepare than Ms. Wynne’s group might.
Ms. Wynne may still be better off with a hungry new crowd than a battle-weary one going through the motions one last time. But when the Liberals say they want to avoid a spring election, there’s good reason to take them at their word.
With a report from Adrian Morrow