- With a reported 1,500 delegates in attendance, joined by several of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers, the Ontario Liberals assembled a surprisingly strong turnout for an early March event at the Hamilton Convention Centre.
- Likely leadership contender Nathaniel Erskine-Smith hosted a packed event and compared the Ontario party's situation to the federal Liberal Party’s state after the disastrous 2011 federal election.
- Lloyd Rang, a former speechwriter for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, said it's a huge challenge responding to "a post-ideological populist conservative government.”
HAMILTON — The Ontario Liberal Party’s annual general meeting was not typical of a party that holds just eight out of 124 seats in a legislature, nor did it reflect descriptions of the party as teetering on the brink of extinction.
With a reported 1,500 delegates in attendance, joined by several of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers, the Ontario Liberals assembled a surprisingly strong turnout for an early March event at the Hamilton Convention Centre.
The AGM did not answer the party’s most nagging questions though, including, most importantly, what the party stands for in 2023. A lengthy leadership race, with an election date still undecided, will determine who will assemble the party’s next policy platform and take on the Progressive Conservatives in the next election.
With the PCs coasting to majority governments in the previous two elections, some insiders and outsiders have compared this moment for the Ontario Liberals to the existential moment faced by the federal Liberals when Stephen Harper won three consecutive elections from 2006 to 2011.
Likely leadership contender Nathaniel Erskine-Smith hosted a packed event and compared the Ontario party’s situation to the federal Liberal Party’s state after that disastrous 2011 election.
“We have a Liberal Party in need of serious generational renewal, and we have a lot of energy and we’re going to get there, but we have a very frustrating Conservative majority government,” said Erskine-Smith in a speech to the ballroom’s audience. “Do I think there’s the same mean-spiritedness that we saw under Harper? No, but I see deep, deep incompetence at Queen’s Park, even when they say the right things, they cause absolute chaos.”
Although accused of being incompetent, the PC government has performed better than the Liberals or the NDP during the last two election campaigns.
Lloyd Rang, a former speechwriter for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, said it’s a huge challenge responding to “a post-ideological populist conservative government.”
“You have a Ford government that doesn’t adhere to a lot of the traditional conservative principles,” said Rang.
Rang said Ford is not like past PC leaders like Mike Harris, who led a government of hardline fiscal conservatives who radically reduced government spending, regulations, and taxes across the board in Ontario. Indeed, Ford’s government did not table a balanced budget until this year, and the PC government remains among those most willing to spend taxpayer dollars in Canada.
Despite an unclear, or absent, philosophical grounding, it did not hurt the PCs during the last provincial election. Ontario Liberal supporters, on the other hand, have said that defining what Liberalism is in 2023 is a priority for the party.
That starts with a close examination of the failed campaigns against Ford.
One criticism of the party’s disastrous showing in the 2022 provincial election was its inability to stake out any popular policy positions, with then-leader Stephen Del Duca pledging to cancel new highway projects and allow teenagers to attend an extra year of high school.
If any new policy direction was obvious from the convention, it was opposition to the premier’s recent moves on health care. Specifically, controversially expanding private-sector involvement by permitting for-profit clinics to help clear surgery backlogs.
Speakers at the opening night’s podium slammed Ford’s decisions, as did others throughout the convention centre.
Don Valley East MPP and physician Adil Shamji put up a booth outside the auditorium titled “Patients, Not Profits.” He made it clear that he is fundamentally opposed to private sector involvement in health care and that he is exploring a run to become party leader.
“We’re going to keep pushing until the message becomes impossible for this government to ignore, that…when it comes to health care, it should be about patient health, not private wealth,” said Shamji.
Shamji said that if one thing is near and dear to the people of Ontario, it is universal, publicly-funded health care.
“‘Patients, not profits’ sends a very clear message to the entire province that the Liberal Party is here and ready to fight for their health-care system, and to do whatever it takes to take the fight to Doug Ford,” said Shamji.
The AGM was a nominally bureaucratic affair to elect the Liberal Party’s newest executive council and determine constitutional amendments, most prominently the nearly unanimous decision among delegates to switch the party’s leadership election rules to “one member, one vote.”
However, the most prominent attendees were not executive candidates, but the collection of likely entrants into the party’s leadership race, most notably sitting federal Liberal MPs Erskine-Smith and Yasir Naqvi. Like Shamji, both are officially exploring a run for the leadership, and their presence overshadowed much of the conference.
Reflecting arguably the sole policy theme to emerge from the AGM, Naqvi accused Doug Ford of breaking Ontario’s health-care system.
“I’m a firm believer in a universally funded health-care system. That is a cornerstone of how we provide important services that give people an opportunity to grow,” says Naqvi. “I can tell you as an immigrant who came to this great country, having a publicly funded health-care system, along with a good education system, was the great equalizer for my family.”
Premier Ford’s offering of so-called “strong mayor” powers to Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe of Ottawa and now-former Toronto Mayor John Tory, allowing them to pass legislation with only one-third of city councillors voting in favour, was another policy that Liberal leadership candidates critiqued, albeit less forcefully than the health-care file.
Sutcliffe has stated he will not utilize the strong mayor powers, but Ford’s granting of them to John Tory was understood as a move to help streamline housing developments in Toronto.
“I know this is directed at housing, but I think at the municipal level, people should be trying to win over voters instead of steamrolling them with the strong mayor powers,” says Liberal MPP Ted Hsu. “I don’t see the need. I think we just need to work harder on building a consensus and building coalitions to get housing built.”
Hsu, the MPP for Kingston and the Islands, is expected to also be exploring a leadership run and hosted a hospitality suite on the 18th floor of the nearby Sheraton Hotel.
Regarding housing, Hsu laid out what he believes both the provincial government and the private sector must do to make housing more affordable in Ontario, currently the second most expensive province in Canada to rent or own a home.
“The provincial government should be spending money directly on affordable housing…that is affordable when it’s newly built,” says Hsu, who believes federal cooperation is necessary to create housing for people suffering from mental health and addictions.
Also present was Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who attended a smaller hospitality suite on Friday with Oakville MP and federal Minister of National Defence Anita Anand in attendance. Throughout the AGM, other members of Trudeau’s federal cabinet made appearances, including Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino and Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra.
Crombie has been called another potential leadership candidate, despite publicly stating she is “entirely focused” on being the mayor of Mississauga. With strong local backing in the Peel Region that saw her win re-election with nearly 80 percent of the popular vote in October’s municipal elections, Crombie could be in a strong position if she does enter.