As Ontario PCs scramble to choose a leader, Liberals gather to talk policy, election strategy

As members gather in Toronto for the Ontario Liberals' annual general meeting this weekend, organizers say the turmoil in the Progressive Conservative party won't affect their discussions on policy and election strategy. But observers outside the party say that's impossible.

Liberals from across province gather in Toronto this weekend for the party's annual general meeting

Premier Kathleen Wynne talks to the audience at Benjamin Franklin Place in the west Ottawa community of Nepean. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

As members from across the province gather in Toronto for the Ontario Liberals' annual general meeting this weekend, organizers say the turmoil in the Progressive Conservative party won't affect their discussions on policy and election strategy.  

But observers outside the party say what's happening with the PCs can't help but have an impact on the meeting.

Brian Johns, president of the party, says interest in this year's conference is high — approximately 1,500 delegates from associations in 124 ridings across the province are expected at the Westin Harbour Castle Convention Centre.

"This is the most people we've had to an [annual general meeting] in recent memory," said Johns.

He says the meeting's been months in the planning so the interest isn't a byproduct of what's going on with the PCs, as they scramble to replace their leader in the wake of Patrick Brown's ouster due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

"I recognize that it very well may be that, but it's not," Johns told CBC Toronto, pointing out that grassroots party associations have been bringing forward policy suggestions for months.

Who the Tories elect won't change the party's direction, he claims.

Brian Johns, president of the Liberal Party of Ontario, says interest in this weekend's annual general meeting is high, but that has nothing to do with dramatic developments in the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. (Liberal Party of Ontario)

"Not at all. We don't work like that. We've been operating with a very steady hand and we've had a plan for a very long time," Johns said.

"We knock on doors; we speak to people and hear their voice. And regardless of what the other party does it's not going to stop us."

Premier Kathleen Wynne says she looks forward to addressing the party's rank and file on Saturday night, and claims the tumult in the PC party will not dominate the conversation at the meeting.

 "We all know there's lots of political discussion about what's going on in the other party, but that's not core to what we will be talking about this weekend," Wynne said.

But Cristine deClercy, an associate professor of political science at the Western University, says there will be no way delegates will be able to ignore the elephant in the room.

"What's going to happen with the Progressive Conservative leadership race and how then should the Liberal party's campaign team try to respond to or anticipate certain outcomes?" she said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

Cristine deClercy, an associate professor of political scientist at the Western University, says planning election strategy will be difficult for Liberal Party members when the leader of the PC party has yet to be elected. (Western University)

The sudden ouster of the PC leader, and the decision by the party executive to call a snap leadership race, present a lot of uncertainty for the Liberals, says deClercy.

"They're not sure whom they will be fighting. They're not sure if the Tory platform, which has been widely disseminated and carefully crafted, will be the platform the party runs on or not in June," she said.

"They also don't know how this situation will play out for the New Democrats and this necessarily and inevitably will affect how they calculate and how they plan strategy around the election."

Aleem Kanji, vice-president of government relations for Toronto lobbying firm Sutherland Corporation, says it will be difficult for the party to finalize policy this weekend, not knowing where their opposition stands.

Aleem Kanji, of the Toronto lobbying firm Sutherland Corporation, says timing of the Liberals' next budget will be crucial given that the Tories will announce their new leader in March. (Sutherland Corporation)

"The challenge will be not knowing who their opponent will be," says Kanji. "Where will they position themselves? Certainly the landscape could change."

Kanji points out the Liberals will be tabling their budget in March around the same time that the Ontario PCs announce their new leader.

"That will be their blueprint for the election. How that narrative plays out will make this a very interesting time in Ontario politics."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.