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Harinder Takhar, who is running for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal party is photographed at Queen's Park in Toronto, Ont. Wednesday, January 16, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Harinder Takhar, who is running for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal party is photographed at Queen's Park in Toronto, Ont. Wednesday, January 16, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario liberals

How Harinder Takhar has made himself a player in the Ontario Liberal race Add to ...

He entered the Ontario Liberal leadership campaign at almost the last possible moment, a candidate plagued by subpar communications skills and a spotty ethics record. Today, he’s running a surprisingly strong fourth – good enough to give him a chance to crown the province’s next premier, even if he still has little chance of winning that job himself.

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To listen to his critics, Harinder Takhar is an imposter and a menace. The prospect of him parlaying the 13 per cent of elected delegates he will bring to next weekend’s convention into a powerful government position is, by the account of a recent Toronto Star column that had some Liberal heads nodding, one that should cause Ontarians considerable alarm.

To listen to Mr. Takhar, he’s an inspiration. “I see myself as a trailblazer in the South Asian community,” he said in an interview last week. His candidacy, he predicted, will “open up doors for all communities – it doesn’t matter their colour, where they come from, where they were born.”

What Mr. Takhar really is, when you get past the overheated rhetoric, is a savvy guy who has cleverly worked within – and in the process exposed – a leadership-selection process that has encouraged precisely the sort of old-school “ethnic politics” some Liberals are now purporting to disdain.

He does not deny that he has pulled most of his support from a small number of immigrant communities. But that doesn’t entirely set him apart from the rest of the leadership field.

“Charles Sousa went to his community and got votes,” Mr. Takhar said in the interview, referring to the fifth-place candidate’s focus on fellow Portuguese-Canadians. “He’s not being targeted because he’s not the same colour I am.”

There is no questioning the first part of that statement, at least. And while front-runners Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne have tried harder to make broad appeals, they too have disproportionately drawn support from relatively narrow demographics.

“Everybody has been targeting the South Asian community,” Mr. Takhar said. And while he allowed that “I belong to that community, so naturally I will get a little more support than everybody else,” he noted that others will also draw from wherever they naturally have an advantage, including Ms. Pupatello from Italian-Canadians.

If that all seems trapped somewhere last century, the antithesis of ambitious outreach attempted during the federal Liberals’ concurrent leadership campaign, the fact is that provincial candidates would have been daft not to play it old school in this campaign.

After Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his resignation in October, the Liberals gave prospective candidates less than a month to sign up new members eligible to elect delegates to the convention. When organizers have extremely narrow windows to build support bases, especially for candidates running for unpopular parties in unengaged provinces, they go where many new members can be signed up at once – churches, temples, community associations – rather than focusing on individuals.

Mr. Takhar was more explicit about it than most, boasting that he only put resources toward delegate contests in the roughly half of ridings where he thought he was competitive, which naturally skewed along demographic lines. And if he is to be believed, he will only spend about $100,000 during the campaign, one-fifth of the limit. Yet he will enter the convention carrying more weight than not just Mr. Sousa but also Eric Hoskins, a seemingly attractive candidate who relied more upon persuasion than community ties, and has 6 per cent of elected delegates to show for it.

What exactly Mr. Takhar’s candidacy has achieved is another matter. For all his talk of barrier-breaking, his main contribution – and it’s a significant one – has been to put forward a fiscal agenda far more detailed than that of any other candidate. More materially, he may assure himself a prominent role in the next cabinet by playing queen-maker. (Some Liberals perceive him to have been a stalking horse for Ms. Pupatello all along.)

At the same time, he has attracted all sorts of unwanted attention. Some of it, including a dispute about just how poor he was when he came to Canada that hardly stands out in the history of politicians exaggerating humble roots, is pretty marginal. Much more significant is his inability to explain away the provincial integrity commissioner’s 2006 ruling that, while in cabinet, he failed to maintain a suitably arms-length relationship with a business placed in a blind trust.

But that question mark is not new, and Mr. Takhar has been able to run a relatively successful campaign in spite of it. For anyone who has a problem with that, the issue should be more with the process than the candidate.

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