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Opinion: Ontario Liberals need to figure out who they are

Two crushing defeats point to need for ideological shift

The Ontario Liberal Party has issued a post mortem on its 2022 election performance, and it concluded that pretty much every thing that could go wrong did. Much of the difficulty could be traced to two factors—the 2018 election and COVID. The lingering effect of the devastating 2018 election was that the party did not have official status and therefore lacked the funding that is available for administrative and research staff when a party has official status. The COVID emergency, which was declared just days after Stephen Del Duca became party leader, meant that traditional leadership tools like  face to face rallies and listening tours had to be sharply curtailed.

Leader Stephen Del Duca was given high marks for erasing the party’s $10 Million debt, but the report acknowledged that he did not resonate with voters on a personal level.

Other observations from the 13-page report:

  • Riding associations are weaker than ever, although this is a problem all parties face
  • The campaign appeared to lag behind the others in voter identification and use of technology, This is particularly important at a time when recruiting volunteers is a major problem for all parties
  • Its no secret that parties rely on their paid staff to act as unpaid volunteers during campaigns, to essentially earn their jobs back. When a party is reduced to eight seats the number of those individuals available is reduced accordingly.
  • The platform tried to be all things to all people. It was difficult for Candidates to articulate what Ontario would look like under a Liberal government.
  • Candidates lacked both campaign training and media training
  • COVID restrictions dampened campaigning and voter engagement, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in history—a circumstance that inevitably helps incumbent governments.

The report went on to say that despite the shortcomings, the overall quality of candidates was high and that 78 percent of them were prepared to run again.

What the report touched on, but did not flesh out was perhaps the most critical factor in the Liberal defeats of 2018 and 2022—where does this party sit on the political spectrum?  For years the party was seen as a centrist-progressive alternative to the Conservatives. It was a Liberal finance Minister, Bob Nixon, that brought in Ontario’s first balanced budget in years.

The party lurched to the left under Dalton McGuinty, perhaps understandable in trying to provide an alternative to the Mike Harris austerity, but under Kathleen Wynne, the party became indistinguishable from the NDP, and the voters showed that they wanted a return to the centre so badly, they were willing to take a chance on Doug Ford. They repeated the process in 2022.

The report is recommending a full-fledged policy conference, and as messy as these can be, it is an essential step for Ontario Liberals. A rebuilding Liberal Party will have to answer the question of ideology before it can successfully tackle the other problems identified in the report. Otherwise a large number of centrist Liberals who felt they had no alternative but to vote PC will stay put.

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