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Ontario Liberals consider changing how they pick new leader

The Ontario Liberal Party is about to face a key decision even before it starts down the road of choosing its new leader: figuring out exactly how it should choose that leader. 

Party members must decide whether to abandon delegated convention in race to replace Kathleen Wynne

Kathleen Wynne announced her resignation as Ontario Liberal Party leader on election night last June. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

The Ontario Liberal Party is about to face a key decision even before starting down the road of choosing its new leader: figuring out exactly how it should choose that leader. 

Proposals unveiled on Thursday would allow all party members to vote directly in the leadership race. The current Ontario Liberal constitution calls for a leadership convention where only selected delegates have that power.

Party members will decide on whether to change that constitution and the leadership race rules during the upcoming Liberal annual general meeting, the party's first since its election defeat. That meeting begins June 7, precisely one year after Doug Ford's PCs swept the Kathleen Wynne-led Liberals from office. 

The choice matters for the Liberals because it can have an impact on the party's efforts to rebuild. 

Nearly all Canadian political parties at both the federal and provincial levels have abandoned the delegated convention method for selecting their leaders. Instead, they use some form of a one-member, one-vote system.

MPP Mitzie Hunter wants the Ontario Liberal Party to do away with delegated conventions and move to a one-member, one-vote system. The party will make a decision at its June annual general meeting. (CBC)

Advocates of that method say it is best for encouraging people to sign up as members, a key part of rebuilding a party as shattered as the Liberals. They won just seven seats, the party's worst result in the province's history. 

"In the face of this Ford administration, we need the Ontario Liberal Party to be as strong as possible and rebuild as fast as possible," said Nate Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP for the Toronto-area riding of Beaches-East York.

"Based on my experience at the federal level, with similar rules, direct participation is the best way to engage our grassroots."  

Mitzie Hunter, one of the seven surviving MPPs, is also among those pushing for the change. The Liberals should be "moving away from a select group of people choosing who the leader is," Hunter said earlier this year. 

Advocates of a delegated convention say it's the method that brings the party the best leader. They point out that three of the last four Liberal leaders chosen at delegated conventions — Wynne, Dalton McGuinty and David Peterson — went on to become premier.  

    So far, only two Liberals have announced they intend to seek the leadership, former cabinet ministers Steven Del Duca and Michael Coteau. 

    Del Duca is staying neutral on the method for choosing the leader, but says it's a conversation the party needs to have. 

    Steven Del Duca lost his seat in the 2018 election. He has announced he's seeking the Ontario Liberal leadership. (CBC)

    "We were compelled because of the result last June to go right back to basics and figure it all out," said Del Duca in an interview Thursday. "Part of that will be how we choose our leaders." 

    "It's really important to look in the mirror and examine how we rebuild the political movement that we are," Del Duca said, "how we develop our policies, raise our money, choose our leader, all of that." 

    He said he plans to run no matter which format the party chooses.

    Coteau says his personal preference is a hybrid model that sticks with a delegated convention but allows for people who become "supporters" of the party at no cost to vote in delegate selection meetings. 

    "It opens up a whole new potential membership base," said Coteau in an interview Thursday. He said the delegated convention protects against what he calls "special interests" taking over the leadership vote. 

    Another decision that the party's executive will soon face is the timeline for the leadership race.

    The October federal election is a factor, in large part because any leadership race would be completely overshadowed by the national vote. Also, the provincial Liberals want federal Liberals who aren't re-elected this fall a chance to seek the leadership.

    However, some in the party don't want to delay the race much longer.  

    "We have an opportunity to defeat [Premier] Doug Ford in the 2022 election, but we can't do that in the current state of the party," said a senior Liberal organizer, who agreed to to discuss internal party affairs on condition of anonymity.

    Current data from Elections Ontario show the Liberal Party has raised only a fraction of the $4 million the PCs have collected in donations so far this year. 

    Michael Coteau, the Liberal MPP for Don Valley East, has announced his intention to run for party leader. (CBC)

    Liberal officials say the most likely timeframe for the leadership vote is early-to-mid-2020. 

    The annual general meeting comes after the Liberal party hit a couple of bumps on its journey back from the political wilderness. The government raised the bar for official party status in the Legislature to 12 seats from eight seats, putting out of reach the Liberals' chance to gain caucus funding and guaranteed appearances in question period 

    Then, two of the party's seven MPPs announced in quick succession that they're leaving provincial politics in the coming months.

    Ottawa-Vanier MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers will become the principal of Massey College at the University of Toronto in the fall. Orleans MPP Marie-France Lalonde will run in the federal election. 

    It's also difficult to believe that Wynne will remain MPP for Don Valley West much longer, as every time she speaks in question period, Ford's PCs shower her with derision.  

    With just seven seats, the Liberals are often ridiculed as the mini-van party. The looming resignations mean the caucus could soon fit its meetings into a hatchback.

    About the Author

    Mike Crawley

    Provincial Affairs Reporter

    Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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