With Del Duca as Liberal leader, Ontario awaits its dullest election in decades

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Ontario Liberals, temporarily condemned to the political wilderness, are betting that blandness is the antidote to recklessness.  But is the Grit brand robust enough to overcome its new leader’s lingering ethical issues, arguably the Achilles’ heel of the party?  And can the electorate really be swayed by a dull-as-dishwater option in a race with three genuine choices?

Steven Del Duca was crowned leader of the Ontario Liberals this past Saturday, an inevitable result after Del Duca had won 56 per cent of the party’s delegate elections one month earlier.  The Liberals are currently licking their political wounds and plotting an immediate return to power after finishing third in the 2018 provincial election, an ignominious end to a 15-year reign that left the Grits without official party status.

Despite no longer being in power provincially, the Liberal brand remains incredibly strong in Ontario, a region characterized by moderate politics.  Although Conservatives have historically dominated Ontario – finishing top in 23 of the last 32 provincial elections, or roughly 72 per cent – the Liberals have prevailed through most of this young century.  Less than 17 months after the 2018 provincial election in which the Liberals were decimated, the federal branch of the party won almost two-thirds of Ontario’s seats in a national election.  The Progressive Conservative stranglehold on the province has been greatly weakened since former Premier Bill Davis retired in 1985 and the party subsequently pivoted away from the political centre.

In a democracy, every government eventually becomes long in the tooth and succumbs to voter fatigue.  But the electorate tends to have a short memory, and 2018 provincial election served as an emotional release value for Ontario voters, allowing them to forgive and forget many of the indiscretions that accumulated under two Liberal premiers.  With Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford plummeting in public opinion polls, many observers expect the Liberals to make a quick return to power at Queen’s Park.

But before we organize the Liberal parade route, it’s worth asking a question: what would happen if the Liberals were to present Kathleen Wynne as their leader again in the 2022 election?  Voters are quick to pardon political parties for past missteps – provided they offer a fresh face and a new vision.  But what if a leader who was previously run out of town by an angry electorate remained in charge of their party?  Would negative emotions from the past come swelling back and give voters pause about replacing Doug Ford as premier?

Such a scenario may be far-fetched, but what would happen if the Liberals instead offered a fairly senior lieutenant from the Wynne era as their new leader – especially a person plagued by several scandals and who failed to earn re-election in his riding during the 2018 collapse?  This is precisely the situation with new Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca.

Might Del Duca’s baggage threaten the OLP’s chances at a quick return to power?  Possibly.  The Vaughan native is known for his wonky blandness, and that may prove an alluring alternative to the bull-in-a-china-shop governance style of populist Tory premier Doug Ford.  Just as U.S. presidential contender Joe Biden, characterized by his dullness and middle-of-the-road nature, looks to serve as a comforting alternative to the reckless leadership of Donald Trump, so too may Del Duca’s drabness be what Ontario voters gravitate to following the trauma of a Doug Ford reign.

But to his detriment, Del Duca can’t help but permeate a whiff of the McGuinty and Wynne eras.  Corruption is the kryptonite of Liberals, and Del Duca’s past – and present – scandals serve as an onerous iron ball he’ll have to lug throughout the 2022 election campaign.  Each issue may seem trivial in isolation – putting a train station in his riding against expert advice, playing favouritism with labour unions, and circumventing municipal development by-laws on his property – but in aggregate, they may be enough to cause Ontario voters concern.

Michael Coteau, who finished second in the recent Ontario Liberal leadership contest, at least had the self-awareness to campaign on making the party embrace “ethical governance.”  In contrast, Del Duca offers a dismissive shrug when it comes to the skeletons in his closet, including those still with flesh on the proverbial bones.

To Del Duca’s credit, his stubborn insistence on only running in his home constituency of Vaughan—Woodbridge does suggest that he has principles, although shunning a “parachute” seat elsewhere in the province and not having a daily presence in Queen’s Park as Liberal leader during the next two years may not be politically astute.

Ultimately, just how terrible Ford’s time in power becomes may prove the greatest factor in whether the Liberals are able to sneak back into the corridors of power at first attempt.  But a “we’re not as bad as the Tories” campaign will not inspire, and low voter turnout may be an even greater factor in Ontario’s 2022 provincial election than a Ford legacy of imprudence.

Combined with the Ontario NDP’s seeming phobia of power, as well as a three-way split in public opinion polls, Ontario may be headed for a hung provincial parliament in 2022 unless things change drastically.  That would see two governments lacking a single-party majority in just four elections, a trend that Ontario hasn’t witnessed since the late 1970s and 1980s.

Former Ontario Premier Bill Davis, who presided over four parliaments, once remarked that “bland works.”  But it remains to be seen whether Del Duca’s baggage is too much for even a myopic electorate to ignore.

Either way, unless the next 27 months offer major surprises, Ontario’s 2022 election is likely to be a choice between several uninspiring options, lumbering our democratic institutions with further cynicism and fostering an increasingly disillusioned electorate.

Photo Credit: In Brampton

More from Devon Rowcliffe.    @DevonRowcliffe

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