Last week I looked at why Ontario Liberals shouldn’t panic, yet. However there are a number of warning signs that should cause Liberals to be very concerned.
With dismal polling numbers, an inability to raise significant money and a Leader who is seen as a lightning rod for many, Ontario Liberals need to get their act together fast if they want to retain government after the next election.
In 2003 Dalton McGuinty campaigned on a simple but effective message, Choose Change. After eight years of Mike Harris confrontational politics Ontarians wanted change. While we have not seen the hard-edged policies of Harris, many are beginning to tire of Liberal rule.
It is said that governments are not elected but rather defeated. After nearly fifteen years of Liberal Ontario, voters may feel that its time to hand the reigns over to someone else. The Liberals need a shakeup that attracts new candidates while offering policies that speak to the situation most Ontarians are facing in their everyday lives. If the Liberals cannot come up with innovative policies and candidates then they will be viewed as a spent political force.
This has been the Achilles heel of the Ontario Liberal Party. It began with the Green Energy Act championed by former Energy Minister George Smitherman. The generous Feed in Tariff (FIT) contracts cost the province millions while seemingly having marginal environmental benefits. It also championed wind turbines that alienated many rural residents in southwestern Ontario that resulted in the defeat of Liberal Ministers and Members in previously safe seats. Next up was the controversial gas plant cancellation in Mississauga and Oakville that cost the province close to a billion dollars and an ensuing scandal. Finally, the rise in energy prices has angered many; especially low income and fixed income Ontarians.
The energy file has hurt the Liberals significantly with voters. The questions will be whether the latest role back in pricing will satisfy them in time for the next election.
There is an old campaign saying that, “money is like oxygen, without it you’re dead.”
The Ontario Liberals hastily introduced election finance reforms after being pilloried in the media over cash for access events and other questionable fundraising efforts. The changes went farther than any other jurisdiction in Canada and were thought to give the Liberals a long-term advantage over their opponents. The thinking was that the Conservatives were saddled with a $5 million campaign debt that would be difficult to eliminate and thus would limit their ability to be competitive. The NDP with their reliance on union funding could not come up with new sources of revenue. Much to the shock of the Liberals, Patrick Brown was able to erase the debt and is on course to significantly out raise the Liberals.
Many sitting Liberals are worried that their traditional sources of income have been eliminated and with little time to transition to this new reality and won’t have enough when the next campaign is called in about a little over a year from now. They recall how it took the federal party almost a decade
to adjust and get their fundraising going. Plus the current polling numbers has made it harder to tap ordinary Ontarians.
In the coming year the Liberals will see not one but two trials involving senior officials from the Premier’s Office. The first one involves Laura Miller and David Livingston who were charged after a police investigation uncovered the deletion of emails in connection with the two gas plants that were cancelled. While not technically under Wynne’s watch she will be saddled with any negative result.
The other one involves her former deputy chief of staff Pat Sorbara. Allegation of bribery of a former Liberal candidate in the Sudbury by-election that saw Glenn Thibeault defect from the federal NDP to win the seat for the provincial Liberals. The loss of Sorbara has had a demoralizing affect on the party as she was tasked with getting the party in shape for the next election.
Both trials will shine the spotlight on the Liberal government and their potentially ethical lapses. A lengthy trial will have a negative affect and provide the opposition with lots of opportunities to hammer the Liberals.
Arguably one of the Liberal’s biggest assets, she is amongst the best campaigners of any political stripe and a born competitor. Yet the Premier has become a lightning rod for many. For those living outside the Greater Toronto Area she is seen as a downtown elite with little connection to the lives of rural and suburban voters. Plus her focus on big ticket items like the Vector Institute, automotive investments and trade missions has left some with an impression that she is more comfortable in corporate circles than with ordinary Ontarians.
While she has shown moments of contrition, her handling of the energy debacle has left a stain that may not be erased by the time the next election roles around. With her personal popularity at record lows there has already been whispers of a leadership campaign afoot. This will only become distracting and potentially divisive for the party at a time they need to be united going into the campaign.
Liberals need to get their ducks in a row and face the challenges in front of them if they are going to be competitive in the next election. If they don’t deal decisively in the next few months then the die will be cast from which it will be difficult to change.
Marcel Wieder is President and Chief Advocate of Aurora Strategy Group. He is an award winning political consulted who has worked on campaigns for over forty years.