A Liberal backbencher with an independent streak is eyeing a new challenge — party leadership
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says the promise of backbencher freedom can be a great recruitment tool
When Nathaniel Erskine-Smith was seeking the Liberal nomination in the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York before the 2015 election, a friend gave him a copy of Tragedy in the Commons, a 2014 book based on dozens of exit interviews with former members of Parliament.
As the title suggests, those MPs did not paint a picture of a noble and well-functioning democracy.
"The [stories were] all laments of, 'I went to make a difference and I didn't make the difference that I wanted to make — I read the talking points and the canned speeches and I voted how I was told to vote,'" Erskine-Smith recalled in an interview last week.
The Liberal MP is not quite ready for his own exit interview. Does he know he would have very different things to say now?
"I would not give an interview like that after seven years [in Parliament]," he said, "not only because I've been able to be my own person and have a voice on behalf of my community, but also because we have made a difference in many different ways over these last seven years."
Having established himself as a very different kind of MP, he is now seriously considering a new and very different kind of job: leader of the Ontario Liberal Party.
That an MP like Erskine-Smith aspires to leadership might seem surprising. It is, after all, party leaders who often get blamed for the stifling conformity and partisanship lamented in books like Tragedy in the Commons. But that novelty might be a significant part of Erskine-Smith's potential appeal.
Mr. Erskine-Smith goes to Ottawa
Justin Trudeau promised a culture change when he became the Liberal leader — one that would empower MPs and allow more free votes in the House of Commons. That promise is part of what motivated Erskine-Smith to give up a career in law and run for office.
"I remember knocking on doors in 2015 and explaining to people this was a really important culture change in our politics," Erskine-Smith said.
"Some voters and constituents at the time said, 'Oh, you naive young candidate, thanks for coming out. You'll see how it actually works when you get there.' And they didn't say the same things to me in 2019."
Trudeau's failure to follow through on his commitment to electoral reform will always cast a shadow over his promise of political change. But Liberal backbenchers have been more assertive over the past seven years than their Conservative counterparts were when Stephen Harper was prime minister. Consider the recent backbench dissent over proposed changes to official languages laws.
But the best evidence of real change is Erskine-Smith's continued presence in the Liberal caucus.
While he has supported his party on platform commitments and confidence matters (and has never seemed particularly out of place in the Liberal caucus), he has broken with his party on a number of votes. Erskine-Smith disagreed with the government on electoral reform, quibbled with its approach to the SNC-Lavallin affair and expressed doubt about its use of the Emergencies Act. He also has pushed his party to move further or faster on climate change, animal welfare and drug legalization.
"Maverick" is the word usually applied to politicians who regularly go their own way, but the word suggests a wildness that doesn't really fit Erskine-Smith, whose demeanour defaults to "measured." He hosts a podcast that welcomes guests from across the political spectrum. He recently won government and NDP support to advance a private member's bill that would launch a review of Canada's pandemic response and require regular reports to Parliament on the federal government's pandemic preparedness.
Shortly after his second son was born in December 2019, Erskine-Smith received a congratulatory call from the prime minister.
"I said, 'Well, thanks so much for the call, prime minister. By the way, I won the private member's bill lottery again, and I'm going to do something on drug policy. I know you don't support decriminalization fully, so give me a policy adviser from your office, a policy adviser from health and a policy adviser from justice. And we will work out a compromise,'" Erskine-Smith said.
The result was C-236, which sought to set new guidelines for police and prosecutors when dealing with cases of drug possession, with the goal of diverting people away from the courts and toward the health-care system. Erskine-Smith's bill was later incorporated into government legislation that received royal assent last fall.
Erskine-Smith isn't the only MP in this Parliament to pursue personal initiatives or possess their own thoughts. But he stands out because of how he has added to the debate, and how he has expanded the idea of what a government backbencher can be.
"I hope people can see not only do I have a track record of moving the window of what is possible to achieve, but I also have a track record of working with colleagues to actually get those things done," he said.
Can a backbencher make the leap to leader?
When Steven Del Duca resigned as leader of the Ontario Liberals last June, Erskine-Smith started considering a move.
After governing for nearly 15 years, the Ontario Liberal Party has finished a distant third in two straight elections. As Erskine-Smith notes, it's a situation similar to the one the federal Liberals found themselves a decade ago.
While much of the media attention has focused on whether Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner would enter the Liberal race (he finally said no this week), Erskine-Smith has been touring the province and preparing for a possible run. He said he expects to make a final decision once the party finalizes the rules for the leadership race next month.
Asked for his elevator pitch to Ontario Liberals, Erskine-Smith talks about generational renewal, turning a "new leaf," rebuilding party infrastructure and organization and a political focus on "fairness." There would, of course, be room for free-thinking backbenchers like himself.
Any Ontario Liberal who doesn't believe in a basic principle like fighting climate change would be better off running for another party, Erskine-Smith said. And caucus disagreements should be focused on ideas, not personalities, he added. But beyond the party platform and confidence matters, he said, there should be room for "serious people … to maintain their own voice."
He said he believes the promise of freedom would be a great recruitment tool — as it was for him.
Pointing to the team and the support he has built in Beaches-East York, he argued there's an appetite among voters for a less stridently partisan approach to politics.
"The willingness to work across party lines to get things done, the willingness to speak one's mind, the willingness to make our politics about ideas — these are all values that people in my community care about, regardless of their political background," he said.
"And so, I think there's an opportunity to help shape those same values from a leadership perspective, to help build a team with those same values. And I think there's a huge opportunity to bring a sense of integrity to politics that, in my view, is one of the most important things we can see in politics."
Winning a party leadership and leading a political party to government are unique and unforgiving challenges. Many have failed at one or the other, for all sorts of reasons. It would be interesting to watch Erskine-Smith try.
But regardless of the result, he may already have ensured that his time in politics will not be remembered as a classic tragedy.