Former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca is vowing to bring the Ontario Liberal party back to government as its new leader, as Progressive Conservatives immediately tied him to the legacy of former premier Kathleen Wynne.
Mr. Del Duca handily won Saturday’s leadership race on the first ballot with almost 59 per cent of the vote. He will now take the helm of a party that has not has a permanent leader since a crushing defeat in the June, 2018 election under Ms. Wynne.
The party currently holds eight seats in the Ontario legislature, and is millions of dollars in debt from the last election.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Del Duca said he wants to create a “modernized political movement” to win the next election.
“When we are united, when we are focused, we get the job done,” he said.
He later told reporters he doesn’t plan to seek a seat in the legislature before the June 2022 election unless a by-election opens up in his riding of Vaughan-Woodbridge, currently held by PC Michael Tibollo.
“I don’t believe that we lost as badly as we did back in 2018 because we lost touch with Queen’s Park…we lost touch with people all across the province in their everyday lives,” he said.
“We have a lot of work to do in order to regain, with humility…the trust of people in this province.”
He said the party needs to raise millions of dollars, find a diverse slate of candidates and come up with a platform that resonates with the public before the next election, which takes place in a little over two years.
But when asked about his own record as transportation minister, which saw controversy over a GO train station located near his riding, Mr. Del Duca said he’s a “work in progress.”
“I don’t think that any one of us delivers perfection, and more importantly I don’t think the people of Ontario expect perfection. They expect competence. They expect a government to gets the big things right,” he said.
Toronto MPP Michael Coteau came second in the leadership race with 17 per cent of the vote; followed by academic Kate Graham with 14 per cent.
In a final pitch to about 2,000 Ontario Liberals on Saturday, Mr. Del Duca took direct aim at Doug Ford, criticizing the Progressive Conservative record on education, health care and the environment and labelling the Premier “a climate change dinosaur.”
Mr. Del Duca portrayed the Premier as a partisan opportunist who does not have Ontarians’ interests at heart.
“What makes my blood boil, and the big reason that I’m in this fight, is that we know that Doug Ford only cares about expanding opportunity for his friends, and for settling old political scores,” Mr. Del Duca told the crowd.
Mr. Del Duca focused his speech on strengthening public education, vowing to keep class sizes small and making online classes “truly voluntary,” two areas of concession recently made by Mr. Ford’s education minister, Stephen Lecce. He also vowed to support universal pharmacare, a key promise from the federal Liberals’ election campaign.
On climate change, Mr. Del Duca accused Mr. Ford of wasting money on gas pump stickers, attack ads and lawyers to fight the federal carbon tax in court. He told the story of his daughter, Grace, being upset about the impact of global warming.
“I refuse to leave Grace’s future in the hands of a climate change dinosaur,” he said.
“We need a Premier who really accepts that climate change is a scientific fact.”
PC House leader Paul Calandra immediately tied Mr. Del Duca to Ms. Wynne’s government, calling him her “right-hand man.”
“He was a cabinet minister for a number of years with Kathleen Wynne…he didn’t listen to the public service and tried to move a GO train station into his riding,” Mr. Calandra told reporters at the convention.
“It’s more…about the arrogance that returns back to the Liberal party. When you hear what he talked about today, it was doubling down on the policies of Kathleen Wynne. It’s like he learned nothing of the 2018 election.”
Mr. Del Duca anticipated the attacks lobbed against him.
As soon as he concluded his speech on Saturday morning, the PC party released a notice that Mr. Calandra would be hosting a “pool party” at the convention, a reference to a recent CBC report about Mr. Del Duca’s failure to apply for the necessary permits for a newly-built pool at his home in Vaughan, Ont.
Mr. Del Duca did not directly answer questions about the pool at his press conference.
“The attacks will be ugly, they will be personal and they will not be honest,” Mr. Del Duca said in his speech.
Mr. Del Duca did not reserve his criticism for Mr. Ford alone: he also went after NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who he accused of siding with the Tories during the Liberals’ time in office.
“At this critical moment in Ontario’s history, when we need progress more than ever before, we cannot afford to have leaders who are missing in action when the bell sounds,” he said.
The NDP’s Taras Natyshak sent out a fundraising email immediately after Mr. Del Duca’s win, calling him a “scandal-plagued, out-of-touch, former Wynne cabinet minister from the right-leaning wing of their party.”
“The Liberal party has now tactically shifted to the right,” Mr. Natyshak told reporters.
The other candidates for leader were: Toronto MPP Mitzie Hunter, Ottawa lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth and failed Toronto-area candidate Alvin Tedjo, who was joined onstage by a robot as he made his pitch for artificial intelligence and basic income.