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Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media following the Ontario Municipal Water Association's 2012 Drinking Water Leadership Summit in Toronto, Wednesday October 24/2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media following the Ontario Municipal Water Association's 2012 Drinking Water Leadership Summit in Toronto, Wednesday October 24/2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

ONTARIO POLITICS

Power to choose Ontario’s next premier lies in the hands of just a few thousand Liberal members Add to ...

It has been in power for nearly a decade – raising more money than its opponents, running slick on-the-ground operations, and building a coalition of support that until recently was holding strong.

Yet the Ontario Liberal Party is also an empty shell in much of the province. And that makes the selection of Dalton McGuinty’s successor a free-for-all rather than the sober process it is sometimes portrayed as.

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As of now, there are only about 13,000 registered provincial Liberals – meaning there are far fewer people eligible to choose the province's next Premier than those who could vote in the third-party NDP's last leadership contest. And that number doesn't even begin to reflect how easily a few new recruits in the right places, heading into the Liberals' membership cut-off this weekend, could affect the contest's outcome.

Of the current party members, sources say, well over 2,000 are in the ridings of Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan, which recently went through contested nomination campaigns before by-elections. So in the rest of the province, the average riding association has only about 100 members. And many are much, much smaller than that.

It’s not just the mostly rural ridings held by other parties where the associations are sparsely populated. According to those who have seen the lists, some Liberal-held constituencies in Toronto until recently had as few as 20 members.

What's important to understand here – and the candidates' organizers understand it well – is that regardless of its size, each riding association is eligible to send 16 delegates to the party’s late-January convention.

Those delegates, chosen at meetings a couple of weeks before the convention, will be awarded proportionate to the share of the vote each leadership candidate receives from each riding's members. So even a few new memberships in the emptier associations could be worth delegate spots; selling a couple hundred could mean walking away with the majority in many places.

Organizers suggest that an enterprising campaign might hope to register 5,000 new members at this weekend’s deadline. If so, sign-ups could easily overwhelm the Liberals’ existing base, even when the hundreds of party elites automatically granted delegate status are factored in.

Of course, getting thousands of people to both register and commit to coming out to delegate selection meetings is easier said than done, and there’s much speculation about which candidates are doing the best job of it after they were all caught off guard by Mr. McGuinty’s sudden resignation announcement.

Kathleen Wynne appears to have been quickest to develop an on-the-ground machine, with the widest reach. Glen Murray, who needs to sign up new members to make up for limited support among existing ones, seems to have come hard out of the gate as well. Charles Sousa is said to be drawing strong support from Portuguese-Canadian communities, and perhaps from other immigrant groups after spending the past year as the provincial government's answer to Jason Kenney.

Conversely, Sandra Pupatello – perceived to be a frontrunner alongside Ms. Wynne – is rumoured to be doing a better job winning over existing Liberals than new ones. Eric Hoskins’s pitch as a fresh face, background as co-founder of War Child Canada and celebrity endorsement from K’Naan may not be enough to make up for a slow start. And Gerard Kennedy is a wild card who in the past has shown ability to reach beyond his party’s core, but seems to be flying by the seat of his pants.

But until the forms are handed in, it’s anyone’s guess. The campaigns don’t even know how many of the forms they’ve given to organizers will come back with names on them, let alone how many memberships their opponents are selling.

If nothing else, the unpredictability adds some intrigue. But the Liberals also seem to be getting the worst of all worlds – neither an open vote, of the sort their federal cousins are holding, nor a decision made by party loyalists.

Instead, the ability to enlist small chunks of an unengaged electorate during a compressed time period may determine the next Premier. And many people who think they should have a strong say in that decision – MPPs, notably – may find they don't have much control at all.

For them, and their party, it's a lesson of what can come from a little too much complacency during the good times.

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