Maybe the Liberals aren’t a penny-stock party after all

They say that a week is a lifetime in politics — and a lot has happened over the past two lifetimes. Here’s what to watch for at the Liberals’ annual general meeting this weekend
By Steve Paikin - Published on June 7, 2019
Michael Coteau
Michael Coteau is the only candidate for the Liberal leadership who is still in the caucus. (twitter.com/coteau)

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An estimated 800 Ontario Liberals will gather this weekend in Mississauga for the party’s annual general meeting, and their mission is clear: make the Grits relevant again.

The past year has been a nightmare for the party, which had been in power for 20 of the 33 years preceding the 2018 election. The litany of difficulties has been well-documented: winning just seven seats last June; failing to achieve official-party status; carrying a huge debt, estimated at $10 million, with little prospect of paying it down; and, to cap it all off, having to cope with two higher-profile MPPs — Nathalie Des Rosiers and Marie-France Lalonde — quitting provincial politics for greener pastures.

Furthermore, the party has decided to embark on a leadership campaign during the run-up to a federal election, meaning all eyes have been on the national stage. That has made the Liberals’ quest to replace former leader Kathleen Wynne rather yawn-inducing. Three candidates have jumped in, only one of whom (former cabinet minister Michael Coteau) is still in the caucus. Another is a former minister who is currently without a seat (Steven Del Duca), and the third is Alvin Tedjo, who ran for office last election but was defeated.

Strangely enough, however, the Liberals aren’t acting like a spent force. No doubt, some encouraging public-opinion polls have put a bit of wind in their sails. In spite of all the negativity surrounding the Liberals over the past year, the popularity of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has sunk like a stone, which has given Tory supporters cause for intense concern and Liberals some hope that they may not be in the wilderness for as long as they once feared. In addition, the attendance numbers for the upcoming annual general meeting are higher than anyone had anticipated.

What the party now needs is some buzz around its leadership contest, the rules and timing of which will be settled this weekend. (The party constitution requires that the leadership issue be resolved by next June at the latest.)

Many observers are wondering why former cabinet minister Mitzie Hunter hasn’t announced her intention to seek the leadership yet. Everyone assumes that she’ll eventually enter the race, but, so far, she hasn’t.

But I think it’s fair to say that the Liberals are looking for something different to add some interest to the race, and we may get our first hint this weekend of what that could involve. Because the AGM is taking place in Mississauga, that city’s mayor, Bonnie Crombie, will have a featured-speaker’s role on Friday evening. Last October, Crombie was re-elected with a whopping 77 per cent of the vote. For the past five years, she’s tried to run a non-partisan administration, believing that she needs to be on good terms with the Ford government. But the fact is, she’s a one-time Liberal MP (2008-11), and if you’re looking for a Liberal in the province of Ontario who’s on a winning streak and is untouched by any of the unpopular decisions of the Dalton McGuinty or Wynne years, then Crombie clearly ought to be on that list.

In the short term, Crombie is focused on her goal of having Mississauga secede from Peel Region (another reason to stay friendly with Ford). The province is expected to make a decision on that file later this month, which leaves Crombie with plenty of runway to consider a leadership bid if she wants to.

I’m told that the mayor will give a generic speech about city-building at the AGM — no red meat for the crowd, and no shots at the province, given that Crombie’s municipal-reform agenda hangs in the balance. Nevertheless, one wonders whether the speech may also give the Liberals a chance to consider her in a way they previously might not have.

Crombie won’t be the only Queen’s Park outsider to get leadership consideration. Presumably, some Liberal MPs (defeated or otherwise) will also turn their attention to the race after the October election.

And, at that point, maybe the buzz that Liberals have been waiting for will finally materialize.

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