This is going to be harder than they thought.
That’s what Ontario Liberals are realizing following their second drubbing in four years, putting the party in uncharted waters — another term without official party status and without a leader following the resignation of Steven Del Duca on election night.
Facing another rebuild, stalwarts are examining what went wrong and a few things that went right as they chart a path forward while Premier Doug Ford enjoys the added clout of a larger Progressive Conservative majority.
“I’m not sugar-coating it. That was pretty devastating last week,” former Liberal cabinet minister John Milloy said Monday.
After holding a steady second in public opinion polls ahead of the New Democrats throughout the four-week campaign, Liberals had hopes of winning 20 or more seats.
But they got eight, just one more than in their crushing 2018 defeat following almost 15 years in government. They are four shy of the dozen MPPs needed for official party status and the increased funding that comes with it.
The standings leave Liberals frustrated and a distant third behind the NDP with its 31 seats, down from 40 in the last election but enough to remain the official Opposition.
“We got slightly more votes than the NDP and a quarter of the seats,” said re-elected Liberal MPP John Fraser (Ottawa South). “It’s like having a good game but you keep hitting the post.”
Speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, one defeated candidate said Liberals are “crestfallen, drained and we need some space and time to feel ourselves again after the numbing shock that shook us to our core on Thursday night.”
Behind the scenes, party activists spent the weekend reeling.
“The result showed we had an uninspiring leader who came with a lot of baggage from his days as a minister in the (Premier Kathleen) Wynne government dealing with transit stations and labour union issues, not to mention his swimming pool issue,” complained one riding association president, referring to revelations that Del Duca’s backyard pool was inadvertently built too close to neighbouring public green space.
“We ignored the tried and true old adage about how to run an election — ‘It’s about the economy, stupid!’ — and because of this, we lost the centre,” the riding association president continued.
“We are no longer seen as a centre party that can ably manage the concerns of the business community and still have progressive ideas. We have shifted so far to the left that we are trying to out-NDP the NDP.”
That included a gimmicky “buck-a-ride province-wide” pledge to temporarily reduce transit fares to $1.
“Even the poor realized it was a trick and that it was an unsustainable policy,” complained the riding association president, pointing out the Tories’ pledge to build the 60 km Milton-Vaughan Highway 413 had stronger appeal.
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“Inequality, jobs and affordability issues were major concerns to voters and building highways brought jobs, like it or not. Certainly the voters and unions liked it.”
The insider said the Liberals need to elect a new leader “far from the Wynne government and get the odour of the Hydro (One) sale and gas plants off their backs and with no baggage of their own.”
Elected in the formerly NDP riding of Kingston and the Islands, Liberal MPP Ted Hsu said support for the party seemed solid until the last two weeks.
“I don’t understand it,” the former MP told the Star. “We have to do some thinking and asking and talking to find out what happened.”
Another Liberal executive warned the party remains “a narrowly exclusive insiders club” that systematically excludes ordinary individuals from exercising influence on the party and without an online discussion forum.
“The leader of our party is resigning, but we need more than that … to get out of our electoral rut,” he added. “The Liberal party’s overall governance needs a fundamental reset, of a kind deeper than what was done after 2018.”
Party president Brian Johns declined an interview request from the Star, but a spokesperson said “we will provide an update on our next steps as a party in the weeks ahead.”
There should be no rush for a leadership race, aside from the appointment of an interim leader, with Ford expected to recall the legislature in the coming weeks to pass a budget, said Milloy.
“You’ve got to let people sort of lick their wounds and get through what just happened … the party leaders should be out encouraging some outside people to come in and run … we’d be crazy to say it has to be someone with a seat.”
On the positive side, Milloy added, the party has paid off its debt from the last election, is expected to retire debt from this year’s by January, and attracted some good candidates, such as former hospital CEO Lee Fairclough in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, who came reasonably close seconds in their ridings.
“We had a few close races. It keeps the interest up because people want to get back and win next time,” he said.
“It’s something to start with.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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