On their first day back at Queen’s Park after the June 2018 Ontario election, the seven elected Liberals couldn’t find a place to meet. There were meeting rooms galore for the Liberals in the castle-like legislative building when they were in government, but on this day, the Liberals regrouped in a restaurant in the basement. A seat short of official party status, minimal staff, and no research money, the makeshift meeting place punctuated a new political reality.
“This was a new world in this building,” said former cabinet minister Michael Coteau, a seven-year MPP for Don Valley East, recalling how he grabbed a plastic jug, filled it with water and brought seven paper cups to that first meeting.
The Ontario Liberal Party expected to lose the June 7, 2018 election. Too much had happened and too much had been said about their decisions and their leader. Former premier Kathleen Wynne knew it when she stepped down as leader a week before the vote in one of the more emotional and historic moments of the heated campaign. The pundits, too, predicted the Liberal fall.
A seat short of official party status, minimal staff, and no research money, the makeshift meeting place punctuated a new political reality.
Members hoped to win at least a minority status in the legislature, but voters had other plans. The Ontario Liberals had been in power for 15 years - a long time in the life cycle of modern politics. When the legislature dissolved for the election, they had 55 seats. The 2018 defeat was a natural course for a party few expected to win four years earlier.
The new reality has set in slowly. In the first 100 days of Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government, the seven Liberals have been quietly adjusting to their offices on the fourth floor of the legislature – a floor Coteau said he had never ventured to until this year.
“Kathleen Wynne says there's no such thing as a bad office in the Ontario legislature because you're here, right?” said a smiling Coteau, seated on a new sofa in his office. “But the legislature today is an entirely different world.”
Now on the outside looking in, the tiny Liberal team has been enduring an onslaught of finger-pointing by Ford’s government, which has set up a special committee of MPPs to investigate what it says is a $15 billion deficit left by the Liberals.
While still in power the Liberals said this year's deficit would be $6.7 billion. Ontario's auditor general said the Liberals had veered away from standard accounting rules and that the deficit was actually $5 billion higher. After an initial review in September, Ford said the deficit was, in fact, much higher and stood at $15 billion. "Kathleen Wynne and her cronies," he said, should be held accountable for "the biggest government scandal in a generation."
In more ways then one, the electoral defeat is defining the next steps the party is taking to regroup and prepare for the political battles ahead.
'Regret is a useless emotion'
Once assigned to the prime seat in the legislature, Wynne now sits at the farthest desk from the Speaker’s chair in the front row on the opposition side. Most days she sits and watches the debate, seemingly adjusting to her new status at Queen’s Park. On occasion, she’ll shake her head at the exchanges, such as a minister’s justification for forestalling a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, as legislated in a 2017 Liberal bill. In one recent question period, she patted interim Liberal leader John Fraser’s back when he banged his head against his desk in jest, reacting to Ford's latest attack on the Liberals.
The Liberals and the sole Green Party member are granted only one question a day in a predetermined rotation because neither has party status.
The shift is hard, Wynne acknowledges without hesitation, but she’s adapting to life away from the premier's office, driving her own car, composing her own schedule, and supported by just one staff member. "I'm learning to be independent," she said in a conversation with National Observer in her office at the end of a narrow, dimly-lit corridor, two floors and a building's length away from the premier's office.
Election night was “a disappointing night but it wasn’t a huge shock,” she said, speaking in a calm but firm tone. Wynne said she knew that candidates were having a hard time at the door because people didn’t want to vote for her. She thought that by conceding she had lost the election during the campaign, she would free voters to support some local Liberal candidates even if they didn't like her.
“It was hard to acknowledge all that but I knew that my personal response was a practical one,” she said. “When I look at a problem, I want to find a way to solve it and I’m not going to let my ego or my feelings get in the way of doing the right thing, whatever it is.”
Regret she said, is “a useless emotion because I can’t go back.” But is she sad about stepping down? “Absolutely,” she says. “But I’m mostly sad and worried for the people of the province and the future.”
Wynne’s resignation is a defining moment for four other MPPs interviewed by National Observer. Coteau remembers telling his two daughters, aged eight and 12, to pay close attention to Wynne’s resignation speech, where she declared that Ontario was ready for change but also asked them to give the Liberals a seat at the table, worried what either an NDP or Conservative government would do with a “blank cheque."
“Here was a sitting premier, in the middle of an election, taking that life-changing decision with great integrity and poise,” Coteau said. “I just looked and I thought how hard it must be to do that.”
Election night was “bittersweet” for Mitzie Hunter, former education minister who was re-elected for the second time as MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood. She celebrated her win the next day at a mosque surrounded by volunteers and community members, while noting too the defeat of her fellow candidates and the loss of a leader she looked up to.
"I believed in the work that we were doing to make life better for Ontarians," she said in conversation. "I knew that we were doing some really, really important work...but people just wanted a different government, and we certainly saw that in the outcome of (election night)."
Fraser said election night left him with "a weird feeling, because on the one hand you're humbled by being elected in your riding but then also getting a dose of humility by being defeated."
At 59, he doesn't want to be permanent leader. Fraser was the obvious choice for interim leader, members say, because he has served the longest, he had a rallying voice, and he was well-liked across the aisle. Fraser knew it would be his job the weekend after the election when he picked up the phone and started calling people.
The party didn't have time to waste. So he become the face of "the minivan party" - a phrase Ford coined in the legislature and Fraser now owns - and the man on the front lines of a combative provincial political landscape.
In the uncertainty after Wynne's resignation and the Liberal party's defeat, Nathalie Des Rosiers, MPP for Ottawa-Vanier, whose political career is only two years long, sought advice on how to navigate her new political status from Bob Rae, the former Ontario NDP premier and former federal Liberal MP. She called him the morning after the election.
“Immediately the question was what can I do to support the next phase of the party, " Des Rosiers said in a phone call. "How can I help regain its footing so it can contribute to Ontario?”
Rae served as interim leader after the 2011 federal election in which the Liberals were reduced to third place, similar to the 2018 Ontario election. His advice, Des Rosiers said, was two-fold. First: there will always be space for the Liberal voice in Ontario. Second: "don't despair."
"He told me to act like you're alive. Be a good member and a good person in the house to ensure you can evaluate soundly the policies of the government," she said.
“If you go into politics you know you might lose,” Des Rosiers added. “There is sense in being in opposition. But, it’s not exactly the same for us today. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Ontario Liberal defeat is a cautionary tale: members
The election post-mortem has only just begun for the Liberals. Rae was present at the party’s first reunion, at a provincial council meeting on Sept. 29 at a downtown Toronto convention centre, along with former and current MPPs. He offered the 800 Liberals the same advice he gave Des Rosiers to set the party back on track. (Staff members said there are usually 200 people in attendance.)
“Reports of our death are vastly exaggerated,” Rae told reporters. “And, I think it's really important to realize that there's tremendous tendency to over-read what a victory means and what a defeat means in this business.”
The party, Rae said, needs to get back to basics: create innovative policy and stronger messaging, and “create a reason for people to want to support you.”
Ford’s attacks on the Liberals were top-of-mind at the convention, as interim leader Fraser attempted to reclaim Ford’s brash comment that the Liberals were a “minivan party.” The two words were on buttons, representative of the Liberal fight for the middle class, according to Fraser’s speech.
Fraser spoke to delegates in a soft, sombre tone, saying voters knew what they were doing when they defeated the Liberal government and relegated them to third place in the legislature. “They put us in the penalty box. Time will tell for how long. And, frankly, they made the right call,” he said, prompting applause.
Their defeat was a cautionary tale, Fraser told reporters afterwards, of what happens when governments forget to connect with the people they serve.
There was agreement among all members that the Liberal Party had failed to listen to the people of the province, and veered far away from what Fraser called, "the pragmatic centre" that they have historically defined for themselves. Members, past and present, were hesitant to lay blame on any one policy decision – although the controversial and publicly disliked sale of Hydro One in 2017 was hinted at by some as the beginning of the end. More members, however, said it was the mechanism of the party structure that had failed.
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason, Coteau said. “I think that there were so many things that were happening at once. It was hard for people to tune into what was taking place and if they didn't like a couple of those policies that we were presenting, it was easy for them to focus on the two bad things versus the 10 good things,” he told National Observer.
“The element of change is a very powerful thing,” he said. “Change brought in Barack Obama and change brought in Donald Trump. They’re so opposite from each other, but the need for change was so strong we saw the extremist view pushed in.”
Fraser said people in his riding didn’t know who to vote for because they didn’t like any of their options. “They were at polling stations asking each other what they’re going to do,” he said. “And, we weren’t able to bring them together.”
While Wynne was frequently maligned during the campaign, Des Rosiers said the Liberal party's defeat isn’t just on her. “Communications could have been better,” she said. “There was some disconnection between the central campaign and local campaign. They didn’t know what was happening or didn’t feel engaged.”
Former MPP Steven Del Duca agreed. “I think it was that decisions were conveyed in a way and were felt by particularly middle class families and those who aspire to be in the middle class that we were a little bit tone deaf to some of their concerns,” he told reporters at the convention.
“It’s the great Liberal conversation, we’re having, isn’t it?” former MPP Deb Matthews told National Observer at the gathering. “Some people thought we had to be true to our Liberal values … others thought we should move to the right. But, I think when you’re in government for a long time, you tend to rely more on your ministers and caucus member to get their advice when you should be listening to grassroots members.”
Wynne's presence at the convention surprised some. Fellow Liberals lined up to give her hugs. “I needed people to know that I stood by what we did but that we made mistakes,” she told reporters in a quiet corner outside the main hall. “For me personally, what I take from this discussion is that there is a trap of getting involved in the policy discussion without balancing it with the discussion with people outside of the policies.”
“Our net wasn’t wide enough. People didn’t feel included. I think that’s what we’re hearing today,” she said.
But at the convention, there was hope too. Some, including MPPs Hunter and Coteau, called the day a “movement” set to re-engage the “real person-to-person listening” they had lost. “I think, perhaps, we were making decisions too centrally and not engaging enough with our grassroots, our local associations, our supporters,” said Hunter at the convention. That’ll change, she said with assurance.
“There was a perception of the Liberals being a bit arrogant,” Des Rosiers said afterwards. “And the others just ran a good campaign.”
The party definitely had “baggage,” former MPP and Attorney General Yasir Naqvi told National Observer at the convention, but three months into Ford’s governance, he said, people are fighting for the same issues that are part of the Liberal legacy: climate change, basic income, and a modernized sexual education curriculum.
“All these things that the broader public is saying are important for the progress are something that our party, while we were in government, championed,” Naqvi said. “I think speaks to the fact that we were in the right direction in terms of the issues that we want to address. We just lost touch with the more immediate needs of Ontarians.”
'It is very difficult to sit quietly': Wynne
The challenge ahead for the Liberals is two-fold: regroup but also fight back. Des Rosiers said that there is a need to build back a base, “ensure these small associations are not ashamed to be Liberal” but also to improve the party’s participatory rights in the legislature so that they can hold the government accountable.
Wynne was in the legislature the day senior members of the public were handcuffed and removed from the public gallery during debates over a bill to slash Toronto city council in half. The scene of a Conservative government disallowing people from taking action was “dishearteningly familiar,” she said: 20 years ago when Mike Harris was premier, she had been removed from the public gallery for protesting the amalgamation of the city of Toronto.
That moment reminded Wynne of why she had gotten involved in provincial politics. It was her response to Harris’s chaotic political approach. “And we were doing it again,” she said, animatedly. “I had sort of equal parts rage and despair on that day.”
Wynne said she believes the Ford government is “systematically stepping back in time to a time when progress was only imagined.” Their policies to scrap the climate change, labour and education reforms that her government and party helped usher in are “irresponsible” and “short-sighted,” she said.
“It is very difficult to sit quietly in the legislature and listen to what amounts to obfuscations, if not outright lies, about what we actually did and what the impacts of what we did have been,” Wynne said.
Coteau, too, worries that the Ford government is “creating a narrative without backing it up,” that is setting a dangerous precedent as a wave of conservative populism spreads across Canada, from Quebec to Alberta. His threat to use the notwithstanding clause to override rights protected in the Canadian Constitution and his approach to climate change policies like the carbon tax against polluters is “doing people a disservice,” he said.
“It really does people a disservice when they can’t weigh the true impact of what politicians are saying,” Wynne said, noting that Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley is facing a similar political fight against Jason Kenney, United Conservative Party leader and Ford’s close ally in the fight against carbon tax, in the May 2019 election. Kenney, Wynne said, would take Alberta down the same road Ford has taken Ontario down. “They will oversimplify issues, and will not have the best interests of the most vulnerable at heart.”
At a time when populist politics is spreading across the country and the world, “Ford is opening the door to what I think are very dangerous times,” Wynne said. “I’m really worried.”
“Populism is nostalgic,” Des Rosiers said, and that’s where she believes the Liberal party comes in. In her view, the Ford government seems to be operating in “crisis mode” and struggling to learn the rules of provincial politics. “We’re still trying to understand the vision they’re trying to implement beyond the slogans they use," she said. "We’ll see how backwards we go before we move forward again.”
A new foundation needs to be set before any of this can be tackled, she noted. Moving forward, the Ontario Liberals will be searching for candidates for a leadership election at a convention over a year away. Before that, they're consulting grassroots Liberals to prepare for a policy conference. Wynne intends to help rebuild.
“I'm not done,” Wynne said. “As I said on election night, I'm still standing. We're still standing.”
Editor's note: This article was updated at 9 am on Oct. 11, 2018 to correct that former premier Kathleen Wynne conceded she had lost the election during the 2018 election campaign and resigned as Ontario Liberal leader after the June 7, 2018 vote.