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Race To Take Over Ontario's Decimated Liberal Party Heats Up

Crucial votes on Feb. 8 and 9 will decide who actually gets to vote for the person who could become Ontario's premier.

TORONTO — None of the candidates running for Kathleen Wynne’s old job can say they support the way Ontario’s Liberal party chooses its leaders. One actually laughed out loud when asked if the model is democratic.

The delegated convention model is the opposite of giving people a say in how their government is run, candidate Alvin Tedjo told HuffPost Canada when he was done having a laugh.

“We have to give people the right to vote for the leaders they want directly,” Tedjo said. “It’s an antiquated system.”

The convoluted process to choose Wynne’s replacement kicks off this weekend with elections to decide who will actually get to vote in the contest. It’s a crucial moment for a party at its lowest standing in more than 150 years — and it could be crucial for the province, too.

“It’s an antiquated system.”

- Alvin Tedjo

Even without a permanent leader, polls are giving the Liberals an edge over Premier Doug Ford’s ruling Progressive Conservatives. So this contest could decide who becomes Ontario’s next premier.

On Saturday and Sunday, the Liberals’ 37,831 paying members will vote for “delegates” to represent riding associations, student clubs and women’s clubs at “Leadership Election Meetings” (LEMs). Those approximately 1,984 delegates, along with hundreds of “ex-officio delegates,” who automatically get to vote because they are former MPs and MPPs, the party’s executive council, and other party brass, will choose the next leader at a convention on March 6 and 7.

The candidates — three former cabinet ministers and three others who have never held office — call the delegated model confusing and inaccessible and say that it discourages people from joining their party. Most political parties in Canada have moved to a one-member-one-vote system. The federal Liberals did so in 2009.

From left to right, the Ontario Liberal leadership candidates: Michael Coteau, Steven Del Duca, Kate Graham, Brenda Hollingsworth, Mitzie Hunter and Alvin Tedjo.
HuffPost Canada Composite
From left to right, the Ontario Liberal leadership candidates: Michael Coteau, Steven Del Duca, Kate Graham, Brenda Hollingsworth, Mitzie Hunter and Alvin Tedjo.

Fifty-seven per cent of Ontario Liberal members voted to abolish the system in June — but 66 per cent was needed to actually change it, per the party’s constitution.

“For sure, reform is needed,” said candidate Steven Del Duca.

He said he didn’t vote when the party considered a new system because he’d already announced his run for leader. But he “watched carefully” when a majority of members voted to change the system.

Del Duca is considered the man to beat. He’s a former minister who was first elected to represent Vaughan in the final weeks of Dalton McGuinty’s premiership. Del Duca’s campaign says there are 2,676 people running to be his delegates this weekend, out of the 5,500 total candidates the party says are on the ballots.

The F bomb 💣

The leadership race is fundamentally about showing voters that the Liberals are a “clear and compelling alternative to the direction that Doug Ford and his friends are taking Ontario,” Del Duca told HuffPost.

Ford’s name appears all over Del Duca’s website: “Doug Ford claimed the deficit was billions of dollars higher than it is so he could justify cuts to OHIP+, hospitals and other health services … There’s nothing that Doug Ford loves more than ripping up transit plans … Doug Ford brags he’s done a lot for small businesses … The first thing Doug Ford tried to do was pave the greenbelt.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at a news conference in Toronto on Jan. 16, 2020.
Cole Burston/Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at a news conference in Toronto on Jan. 16, 2020.

His main challenger, MPP Michael Coteau, disagrees that the premier should be central to the Liberal race. He has 1,234 potential delegates running in the LEMs this weekend.

“Doug Ford is not the centre of my motivation. I try not to say his name too much … To me, he just represents an ideology that I don’t think represents the best interests of Ontarians,” Coteau told HuffPost.

“So I’m not focusing on Doug Ford. I’m not focusing exclusively on just the fight. What I’m focusing on is … having Ontarians think about where they want to be over the next 10, 15, 20, 30, 50 years. And reimagining Ontario by asking big, bold questions.”

The meme factor 💻

As Del Duca has racked up endorsements from big-name Liberals, a movement to paint him with the same brush as Ford has popped up online. Even meme pages are getting involved.

An anonymous website called “Cons4DelDuca” was created in December to highlight the fact that some of Del Duca’s donors also gave to Ford’s campaign for PC leader. And the popular Facebook page “National Meme Board of Canada” has endorsed Coteau and candidate Kate Graham and written that Ford would probably choose Del Duca, because “they do have the same rich donors backing them.”

Del Duca says it’s the work of the Tories, an indication that he’s the biggest threat to their chances in 2022.

“It’s hard to know for sure, but I’m fairly confident this is another example of Doug Ford and people around Doug Ford deciding that they want to unleash attacks against me,” Del Duca said.

He noted that Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney blamed him, the former transportation minister, in a government news release after she cancelled a Hamilton transit project in December.

“In that moment, they made it crystal clear … that they view me as the most significant threat.”

The barely there party 🧐

Del Duca says he’s the best person to rebuild the party after its whopping 2018 defeat that reduced it to seven sitting MPPs. Many Liberal stalwarts agree.

He’s a “known quantity” who proved himself in cabinet and knows how to fundraise, said John Milloy, a former Liberal MPP who sat in Ontario’s legislature from 2003 to 2014.

He represents the establishment and a tradition of central control, Milloy said.

“That’s not necessarily unwelcome when you’re in the wilderness as we are … We are in a lot of trouble organizationally.”

Likewise, Del Duca said the most important thing the Liberals need is a leader who can hit the ground running as soon as the convention is over.

“We are in a lot of trouble organizationally.”

- John Milloy

“There’s lots of polling showing that our brand remains resilient and strong. That’s all positive and encouraging. But in those 26 months [before the next general election], we’re going to have to be able to find well over 100 candidates who are not currently incumbents, we’re going to have to raise millions of dollars, and we’re going to have to find a way to put together a platform of ideas that are compelling for the people,” he said.

“I’m strongly positioned to be able to do all of those things and prepare us for what I call ‘the fight of our lives.’”

The former minister says his biggest accomplishment in office was funding a “massive” expansion of public transit and investments in infrastructure like roads and bridges.

“Those two things I think stand as a remarkable achievement not just for me as an individual minister, but for our time in government.”

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau campaigns with then-minister of transportation Steven Del Duca on Sept. 4, 2015 in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau campaigns with then-minister of transportation Steven Del Duca on Sept. 4, 2015 in Richmond Hill, Ont.

But he says there were times when the public found his government to be out of touch.

“When you’re talking about a 15-year horizon, it’s very easy for governments to become stuck inside the bubble of government,” he said.

“The only way we’re going to restore the trust and rebuild that relationship with voters … is actually go and talk to everyday Ontarians in their neighbourhoods, in their communities and hear about their concerns.”

Baggage limit 🧳

But like the Ontario Liberal Party, Del Duca’s name carries some baggage.

The province’s auditor general found in 2018 that when Del Duca was transportation minister, he pressured Metrolinx to “inappropriately” recommend GO stations be built in Kirby and Lawrence East, even though the costs of building those stations outweighed the benefits. The Kirby station was in Del Duca’s riding.

And after he became minister of economic development in 2018, Del Duca was accused of giving a leg up to his former employer, the carpenters’ union, at the expense of a rival union.

The other contenders 🗳️

There are five other challengers. Two of them, Coteau and Graham, have been quick to point out that delegated conventions often deliver unexpected results.

“The next time someone tells you that one candidate has this leadership race ‘in the bag’ — ask them about Lyn McLeod or Dalton McGuinty or Kathleen Wynne,” Coteau wrote in a message to supporters on Jan. 25. “No ‘frontrunner’ has ever won our leadership race process.”

Here’s more about the other contenders, in alphabetical order by last name.

Michael Coteau

Like Del Duca, Coteau is a former cabinet minister. As minister of social services, he oversaw the Liberals’ program for children with autism and helped implement the basic income pilot project that Ford’s government quickly cancelled.

“I think that overall, Liberals in Ontario have a lot to be proud of,” he told HuffPost. “But there were a few decisions that were made that weren’t necessarily aligned with where people wanted to go; selling off Hydro One was one of those decisions.”

He said his biggest accomplishments were passing a child protection bill that laid the groundwork for Indigenous-led child welfare agencies, reorganizing autism services and delivering the Pan Am Games in 2015.

Ontario Liberal leadership contestant Michael Coteau with former premier Kathleen Wynne in a Facebook photo.
Ontario Liberal leadership contestant Michael Coteau with former premier Kathleen Wynne in a Facebook photo.

His biggest regret is that the Liberals’ anti-racism plan is no longer being implemented under Ford.

“We put in place the act which passed and Doug Ford has completely destroyed. He’s just not acted on any of it … I really wish I could have explored more ways to lock it into the system so it’d be more difficult for him to dismantle.”

As premier, he says he would hold town halls four times a year to hear directly from voters. He also says he’d create a more respectful legislature by meeting with opposition caucuses at the start of every session.

Some of his other proposals are to:

  • Lower the voting age to 16;
  • Make public transit free for youth and seniors within four years and free for everyone within 10 years;
  • Expand health-care coverage to include dental work and prescription drugs;
  • Make the Greenbelt bigger;
  • Make it cheaper and easier to repair electronic devices like cellphones;
  • Collect data about how Ontarians use public services, like health care, to improve delivery without selling the data to private companies.

Kate Graham

At 35, Graham is the youngest person running for the top job. But she says that’s not the only thing that makes her unique.

“I am the only one who grew up in a small town ... We’ve lost basically every riding outside of Toronto and Ottawa and I’m the only candidate who comes outside of Ontario’s two largest cities,” the London, Ont., academic said.

Kate Graham, second from right, campaigns with Liberal supporters.
Kate Graham, second from right, campaigns with Liberal supporters.

She also points out that she’s not a former MPP or cabinet minister.

“I don’t think we can win in 2022 and beyond if we look the same as we did in 2018,” Graham told HuffPost. “I’ve got a decade of experience in local government, developing public policy … but in an environment where people aren’t part of a political party. People with different ideas actually have to get along.”

She said she’s motivated by a desire to “fundamentally change” the party, which she thinks has become “all about winning elections” and trying to “buy” people’s votes.

A Liberal government should focus on improving wellbeing instead of growing the economy, like the governments of New Zealand and Iceland have, Graham said.

Her platform says she would apply rent control on all rental units, no matter when they were built, create an Indigenous housing strategy and immediately provide $100 million for emergency housing and homelessness prevention.

She also said she would borrow the other parties’ best ideas on health care by:

  • Adopting the Ontario NDP’s “Pharmacare for Everyone” plan, which would cover 125 essential medicines like insulin, antibiotics and birth control;
  • Reintroduce the Liberal’s 2018 drug and dental program, which would cover 80 per cent of prescription drug and dental expenses up to a maximum amount;
  • Take on the Green party’s plan to create more abortion clinics;
  • Use the PCs’ plan to help seniors and people with disabilities buy mobility devices and other health equipment.

Brenda Hollingsworth

Hollingsworth is an Ottawa lawyer who describes herself as a “lifelong Liberal” but has never run for or held office before.

She says the fact that she “comes from outside” is what makes her different than the other candidates.

“I bring the perspective of a person who has lived with the consequences of a Liberal government for 15 years, the good and the bad,” she told HuffPost. “I know what it’s like to struggle to meet a payroll, I know what it’s like to worry about paying rent.”

She said the previous Liberal government had some “outstanding outcomes,” especially full-day kindergarten, which she called its “crowning jewel.”

“I deeply regret that my kids were too old for that,” Hollingsworth, who has two teenage sons, said.

On other issues, like auto insurance, Hollingsworth said the Liberals failed to help people and actually did harm.

Brenda Hollingsworth, in red, laughs with fellow Liberal leadership candidates Alvin Tedjo and Mitzie Hunter.
Brenda Hollingsworth, in red, laughs with fellow Liberal leadership candidates Alvin Tedjo and Mitzie Hunter.

“There were all sorts of changes made to reduce the amount of coverage that people have with a promise of reduced premiums that didn’t materialize,” Hollingsworth said. “That has had very serious repercussions for lots of Ontarians.”

Hollingsworth said that despite her lack of political experience, she has many applicable skills.

“I manage a staff. I make policy decisions. I am an expert negotiator. I have been an advocate for thousands of individual Ontarians over the last two decades.”

As premier, Hollingsworth is proposing to:

  • Fund mass transit projects, including the Hamilton light-rail transit (LRT) project;
  • Develop more transit in rural areas;
  • “Aggressively” position Ontario as a tech innovation hub by creating a facility to train data analysts and cyber security specialists;
  • Give more Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) funding to students who study an area where there’s a demand for labour;
  • Fund the health-care system at the rate of inflation.

Mitzie Hunter

Hunter is the third-term MPP for the Scarborough—Guildwood riding. She served as associate minister of finance, minister of education and minister of advanced education and skills development under Wynne.

“We need positive change in Ontario. And that begins with education,” she told HuffPost in an interview. “It’s not just about reversing [Ford’s] cuts, it’s about going further.”

MPP Mitzie Hunter campaigns in Ottawa with Liberal supporters.
MPP Mitzie Hunter campaigns in Ottawa with Liberal supporters.

As premier, Hunter says she would aim to get the high school graduation rate up to 90 per cent from its current 87 per cent, bring in a school nutrition program and make sure there’s a mental health worker in every high school.

Hunter says that both Ontario and the Liberal party need electoral reform.

She’s pledging to make election day a statutory holiday and introduce ranked ballots.

Last year, Hunter led an unsuccessful push to change the Liberals’ delegated system so that all members could cast a vote in the contest.

“We need to be a party that’s open and that is inclusive, that’s modern and youthful and ready to take on the challenges of the future. I think that moving to a one-member-one-vote system would really help.”

Some of Hunter’s other policy ideas are to:

  • Encourage seniors to rent spare rooms to students, in order to increase housing supply for young people and alleviate loneliness for seniors;
  • Require landlords to give tenants six months’ notice and six months’ rent if they are forced out of their apartment for renovations;
  • Eliminate “yellow-belt” neighbourhoods, where even low-rise apartment buildings cannot be built because they are zoned for detached and semi-detached houses only;
  • Put in a provincial carbon tax that’s equal to the federal government’s system and rebate the money back to residents based on how little they pollute;
  • Let anyone under 30 and survivors of gun violence access mental health services for free with their Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) card.

Alvin Tedjo

Like Graham, Tedjo is in his mid-30s and has never held public office.

“For millennials, people under 40, people like myself, we need to give them a reason to vote for us. We need to give them a reason to vote at all,” he told HuffPost.

Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Alvin Tedjo says he will institute a universal basic income if he becomes premier.
Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Alvin Tedjo says he will institute a universal basic income if he becomes premier.

“And I think the experience that we’ve seen is that unless we are going to be aggressive about climate change, unless we’re going to have a real plan for education and the economy of the future, young people will vote elsewhere.”

Tedjo has grabbed headlines for some of his bold proposals, which include merging the public and Catholic school boards and implementing a basic income based on the Wynne government’s pilot project.

That would provide a no-strings-attached income supplement to anyone living on less than $34,000 individually or $48,000 as a couple.

“I’m the only one saying don’t need any more studies, we need to do this right away,” he said.

As the economy changes and technology evolves, “we need an income floor … so that people can still maintain a certain dignity in their lives while they decide what to do if they need to get retrained.”

He called the PCs’ justification for cancelling the pilot — that it would discourage people from working — “moronic.”

“Wages have been stagnant. People can’t work enough with the additional cost of living going up, with housing prices the way they are, with rents the way they are.”

The idea that low-income people are “sitting on their couch playing video games” is not a reality, he said.

His other policy proposals include:

  • Phasing in universal child care over several years;
  • Implementing a provincial carbon tax at the same rate as the federal tax, so that the revenue could be spent on public transit and to create a “Green Innovation Fund”;
  • Requiring Ontario to consult with rural municipal leaders before spending money on any major infrastructure projects.
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