Despite the efforts of two challengers teaming up against her, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie is favoured to win the leadership of a revived Ontario Liberal Party on Dec. 2. Liberals across the country will be watching. The future of the party could be at stake.
Ms. Crombie has heavily out-fundraised her three competitors, is better organized and, as mayor of a large suburban city in the Greater Toronto Area, is better known.
She is more centrist than her rivals. This got her in trouble when she suggested early in the campaign that the provincial Liberals needed to move to the right and that certain Greenbelt lands should perhaps be developed. Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford ignited a huge controversy when his government attempted to open up the protected lands to development. He backtracked, and so did Ms. Crombie.
The mayor’s centrism has united two of her opponents against her. Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Ottawa MP Yasir Naqvi are each urging their supporters to name the other as their second choice on the ranked ballot. Their thinking is that if Ms. Crombie fails to win on the first round, then the combined second-choice support of her rivals could eventually put one of them over the top. The fact that all 124 ridings are equally weighted also makes the outcome unpredictable.
The scheme has earned considerable pushback. Kingston MPP Ted Hsu, the fourth candidate, declined to participate. Former finance minister Dwight Duncan, a Crombie supporter, characterized it as “a boneheaded, backroom ‘deal’ that can charitably be called desperate.” Fifteen of Mr. Naqvi’s and Mr. Erskine-Smith’s fellow Liberal MPs released a letter endorsing Ms. Crombie.
Mr. Erskine-Smith told me he and Mr. Naqvi had joined forces in an effort to prevent Ms. Crombie from winning because “we have different ideas of what we want out of politics, different ideas about the direction for the party, different approaches to leadership.”
They are more progressive than the Mississauga mayor. For example, both Mr. Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi propose offering free tuition for low-income college students. Ms. Crombie would simply bolster the existing student support program.
Nonetheless, “ultimately we all share a view that this Ford Conservative government has caused great damage to trust in this province – trust in politics, trust in democracy – and there’s a unity to make sure that we deliver better,” Mr. Erskine-Smith added.
There is a spring in the Ontario Liberals’ step these days. After 15 years in government under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne, they were reduced to seven seats in the 2018 election and eight in 2022, depriving them of party status in the legislature.
But the party won two by-elections in the summer. It has paid off its debt and has enjoyed robust fundraising during the leadership race. More than 103,000 members will be eligible to vote for a new leader, almost three times the number in the last leadership campaign. And Mr. Ford’s credibility was badly damaged by the Greenbelt revelations.
And don’t forget that Justin Trudeau took a dispirited, third-place federal Liberal Party to victory in 2015. Ms. Crombie or one of her rivals might be able to repeat the trick.
The future of Liberal parties in Canada could depend on their success. The only provincial Liberal government is in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Quebec Liberals are languishing far behind both the governing Coalition Avenir Québec and a revived Parti Québécois. In British Columbia, the provincial party has changed its name to B.C. United, to distance itself from the brand. And the less said about Liberals in the Prairies, the better.
Federally, the Liberals would be trounced by Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives were an election held tomorrow. It’s a truism that Ontario voters prefer different parties in power provincially and federally. If that truism holds, Mr. Trudeau’s misfortune could redound to the Ontario Liberals’ benefit.
Many Western democracies feature a dominant party on the centre-left and a dominant party on the centre-right. Canada has been unusual in having a governing centrist Liberal Party. Some of us have been arguing for years that the party is at risk of evaporating as Canada evolves provincially and federally toward two-party systems.
A revival of the Liberals at Queen’s Park could, once again, prove us wrong.