At some level, most Ontario Liberals know their time is up.
They’re aware that their almost 15-year-old government passed its best-before date somewhere around 2011; that much of their front-line and backroom talent has moved on to other callings; that they’re at the point where they’re too cozy with the provincial bureaucracy and entrenched interests; that, in a healthy democracy, the pendulum swings.
But that doesn’t mean they’re going to go meekly, in the election campaign that will begin in earnest this coming week with a leaders’ debate on Monday and the start of the writ period on Wednesday. Not when they also know that the stakes are about as high for their party as they could be for any party in any election – high enough to pull out every stop to try to prevent or minimize the defeat that looms on June 7.
Some of the urgency they feel has to do with ideological fears. For all that their record and current agenda can look like a cynical hodgepodge of vote-buying schemes, the Liberals believe they have built a comprehensive set of policies aimed at tackling social, economic and environmental challenges.
In the past couple of years, in particular, they have lit a fire under themselves with an aggressive array of social policies – among them sharp increases to the minimum wage, big daycare and postsecondary-education subsidies, an experiment with guaranteed income. Again, the eye of the beholder matters: To many observers, it’s mostly appeared to be a pre-election leftward swerve to target key voting blocs. The Liberals have convinced themselves, at least, that it adds up to the country’s most ambitious effort to tackle mounting inequality and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Sometimes, a government can lose office knowing much of the change it has implemented is built to last. The Liberals could reasonably have felt that way if the polls-topping Progressive Conservatives were still led by Patrick Brown, who was essentially promising to continue the Liberal agenda with minor tweaks. Since Mr. Brown was replaced by Doug Ford, they lack such reassurance. While Mr. Ford has hardly fleshed out his own agenda, his back-to-basics faith in less regulation and government intervention could leave the Liberals feeling many of their years in office were for naught.
But there are other reasons for the Liberals to be unusually fearful of voters’ wrath, more rooted in self-preservation.
As of now, polls suggest they could easily finish this election in third place. If that happens, with Andrea Horwath’s NDP supplanting them as the primary alternative to Mr. Ford’s Tories, the Liberals could wind up stuck in the wilderness.
The left side of the spectrum, where Ms. Wynne has increasingly moved them, would be occupied by a party that’s a more natural fit there. A digital-media climate that encourages ideological polarization could make it difficult for the Liberals to re-establish themselves in the centre. There is no obvious saviour, their equivalent of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, waiting in the wings.
If that all seems a bit abstract, there will be a more tangible problem impeding their path back to power if they lose badly now: They will be broke.
In 2016, their government introduced new political financing rules that, among other things, ended corporate and union donations to parties, and capped personal donations at about $1,200. Struggling to adapt, their party will go into debt to spend the limit of about $8-million this campaign, plus millions more in election-related expenses that don’t come under that limit.
In effect, they are borrowing against a per-vote subsidy they implemented alongside the new fundraising rules, which provides each party with $2.54 annually (as of 2018) for every ballot cast in their favour in the most recent election. If they get somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million votes, as in other recent elections, that will work out fine for them (at least until a government under Mr. Ford does away with the subsidy, as he has threatened). But if their support collapses, they will be hard-pressed to fund the operations needed to get back to competitiveness.
No leader, let alone one as competitive as Ms. Wynne, wants to leave that legacy for their party.
At the moment, her Liberals – the ones in her inner circle, at least – still seem to think their best chance of avoiding such a fate is by emphasizing the social-policy record and agenda they want to preserve.
But if their polling numbers don’t turn around, if the bottom starts to fall out, it is not hard to imagine their campaign turning dark.
The longer a party is in government, the harder it is for those in its ranks to fathom being out of it, and the more desperate their tone can get as that moment gets closer. But it’s not just the usual fear of a stint in the penalty box that these Liberals have to worry about. It’s something more existential.