Members of the Ontario Liberal Party are talking about their second-straight disastrous election result in epic terms, and warning that the party’s very survival hangs in the balance of what it does next.
The Liberals won just eight seats in the June 2 election, attracting even fewer votes across the province than they did in 2018. It means the party followed up the worst election result in its history with its second-worst result.
The Liberals now face another four years without official party status, which means they won’t get funding for party staff at Queen’s Park. The party also faces a leadership contest to find a replacement for Steven Del Duca after he announced his resignation on election night.
The enormity of this second consecutive rejection has some Liberals calling for a deep and careful examination of what went wrong, along with a diligent effort to hear from voters, with the aim of figuring out the party’s future direction before rushing into a leadership race.
“It’s either an extinction-level event or it’s a renaissance-level event, and I hope it’s the latter,” said Jonathan Scott, a Liberal strategist who helped run Michael Coteau’s runner-up party leadership bid in 2020.
Scott believes the party didn’t really take in the message that Ontario voters sent in 2018 about how dissatisfied they’d become with the way the Liberals governed during the final stretch of their 15 years in power.
WATCH | Steven De Duca announces his resignation as leader after Ontario Liberals trounced:
“This time around, as the party does the soul searching that comes with such an election loss, we actually have to learn those lessons,” said Scott in an interview.
He said it’s imperative that the party show “a level of humility and root-to-branch reform” to build itself back up from the ashes of the election.
Liberal candidates who lost on June 2 are also among those calling for this same kind of soul searching.
“I don’t think we can minimize what happened,” said Andrea Barrack, who lost to the NDP incumbent in University-Rosedale, a part of Toronto that the Liberals had previously considered a stronghold.
“We have lost two elections very badly and I do worry about becoming irrelevant to the people of Ontario or not being seen as a party that can win,” Barrack said in an interview.
While she believes the party is in “a bit of a crisis,” she also thinks that provides a huge opportunity.
“We do need to really think about what is it that we stand for, and who are we doing this for,” said Barrack. “How does that purpose fit the new context that we’re in? And do we have solutions that matter to people?”
Liberal candidate Jeff Lehman lost by just 609 votes to the Ford government’s attorney general, Doug Downey in the riding of Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte. Lehman says it’s essential that the party focus on both of its core values of social progress and fiscal responsibility.
“Our challenge now is to restore Ontarians’ faith in that centrism, in that fiscal responsibility, to be able to speak to the importance of the economy, as we speak to the importance of social progress,” Lehman told TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, in an episode billed as “Are the Ontario Liberals in crisis?”
Both Lehman and Barrack say the Liberal Party has drifted too far to the left and abandoned the political centre to Doug Ford’s PC Party, which in this campaign portrayed itself as an ideologically moderate and worker-friendly choice.
In conversations with a range of Liberals since the election loss, a common theme emerges: they admit their party has fallen victim to a kind of arrogance, a too-strong belief that they are always right, and rather than really listening to the people, seem far more eager to talk down to them. It’s a phenomenon you might call “libsplaining.”
Simone Racanelli, a Liberal organizer, says party activists need to do a solid post-mortem from the election and think carefully about the party’s future identity.
“The next election, it could be do-or-die for us. I personally think it will be,” Racanelli told the CBC Radio open-line show Ontario Today.
Racanelli helped manage the Liberal campaign in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, a west-end Toronto riding that the party had identified as a key target yet fell short of winning by just 803 votes.
“One of the things I heard the most at the doors was people who either didn’t know who our leader was, or they didn’t like what they heard about him,” Racanelli said.
She said two key things the party needs to address are “how to improve our communications and how to connect with the average voter.”
There appears to be broad agreement among Liberals that a rapid leadership race would be a mistake.
“Long before we look to who the new leaders should be, the party has to think through reform of itself,” said Scott. “We need a more inclusive party.”
He said it’s important for the Liberals to take it slowly in order to get it right in time for the next election.
“Change or die,” said Scott. “You might not die in three terms, but you could. That’s not a game of Russian roulette I’d want to play electorally.”
Barrack, who has worked as a senior executive in each of the public, private, and non-profit sectors, also wants the party to take its time picking a leader.
“When you decide that you want to hire a leader, you start with the job description,” Barrack said. “Start by really understanding what it is that you want that person to do. We have some time to do that well.”
Holding just four Toronto seats, three in Ottawa and one in Kingston, the Liberals are left without representation in huge swaths of the province.
Barrack said she was surprised by the weakness of the party’s riding-level organizations, hampering the Liberals’ ability to find out what matters to voters in the community.
“We need people who are talking to their neighbours about the issues that they care about,” she said.