1. Politics

Ontario Liberal leadership candidates hit the debate stage

ANALYSIS: Four of the five people vying to be the next leader of the Liberal party faced off for the first time on Monday. They had different explanations for how the party got to where it is now — and where it should go from here
Written by John Michael McGrath
Mitzie Hunter, Kate Graham, Steven Del Duca, and Michael Coteau participated in a debate on Monday at the annual Ontario Real Estate Association conference in Toronto. (twitter.com/OREA)

There’s no way to put it nicely: the Ontario Liberal Party is in terrible shape right now. Five of the legislature’s 124 MPPs call themselves Liberals, but it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, because as far as the rules of Queen’s Park are concerned, they’re all independents. The party needs money, and even more than that, it needs to drum up voter interest in its future. At this point, it’s not clear that it will have enough of either when the next election rolls around in 2022.

Nevertheless, five people to date have put their names forward to be the next leader of the Liberal party. Four of them — Steven Del Duca, Michael Coteau, Mitzie Hunter, and Kate Graham — participated in a debate on Monday at the annual Ontario Real Estate Association conference in Toronto. Moderated by TVO’s own Steve Paikin, the event was notable because it allowed the candidates themselves to explain how they think the party ended up where it is and how it should get ready for the next election — and, potentially, the one after that.

Del Duca, widely perceived to be the front-runner, agreed with the assessment that the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne went too far to the political left.

“That’s not because I don’t believe that Liberals can be ambitious in our desire to solve real problems that people face every single day, but I am absolutely of the belief that the overwhelming of majority of people in this province do not expect government to solve every single problem for them,” Del Duca said. “I think people felt … that we swung at every pitch. There’s an old saying in our business: if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority.”

Graham, who, like Del Duca, went down to defeat in the 2018 bloodbath, disagreed with the premise.

“There were many parts of the platform that were very popular. Child care, more investment in mental health, things like the pharmacare program. Very popular at the door, but people felt like the party had not heard the things they were worried about,” Graham said. “The party, I think, needs to focus less on left or right and some arbitrary concept of where those are and focus more on hearing from people about the things that matter to them.”

(Graham responded more directly to Del Duca in a twitter thread after the debate.)

Unsurprisingly, given the real-estate-focused audience, housing policy — past, present, and future — was a focus for the candidates. Del Duca embraced the idea that government should “do no harm” when it makes housing policy, and got applause when he suggested that the province shouldn’t let municipalities adopt new land-transfer taxes (only Toronto has a municipal land-transfer tax, and the province levies its own).

Coteau said that government needs to think bigger than cutting regulations or taxes.

“I’ve always talked about brownfield sites across the province and sharing the risks associated with contaminated sites, looking for ways to work with builders like we did with the Pan Am Games,” Coteau said. For the 2015 Pan Am Games, the provincial government spent $700 million on derelict industrial lands near Toronto’s Distillery District for the Athletes’ Village. Before becoming Ontario’s last environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe said that Ontario’s brownfield liability laws were harming redevelopment potential around the province.

Hunter said that the province should look at co-living as one solution for the region’s housing woes and, for example, encourage university students to live in spare rooms in homes owned by seniors. She also urged the province to look at its transit investments through a housing-affordability lens.

“I took a look at the Oshawa GO station the other day and, really, it was highways in a parking lot,” Hunter said. “There was just no thought to how we build in where people want to live, where they want to work, and where they access the services that are important to them.”

But before the Liberals can actually implement any policy, they’ll need to win an election, and there’s no guarantee they’ll do so in 2022. Del Duca said that the Liberals shouldn’t allow themselves to get complacent about current polls — adding that Premier Doug Ford’s unpopularity doesn’t necessarily mean that voters have forgiven the Liberals.

“We still have to raise millions of dollars as a party — we still have to win two byelections that will coming up in Ottawa over the next couple of months,” Del Duca said. “We’re going to need to nominate well over a hundred candidates who are not currently incumbents.”

On top of all that, the party will have just 25 months from the day it picks its next leader to prepare for the start of the 2022 election campaign.

Members of the Ontario Liberal Party will vote for their new leader at a delegated convention on March 7, 2020.