Boring Ontario Liberal leadership race may be making Ontario politics (a bit) more interesting?

Jan 16th, 2013 | By | Category: In Brief

Former Windsor-West MPP Sandra Pupatello. Photograph by: James Park, Ottawa Citizen.

It is now less than  10 days until the Ontario Liberal leadership convention opens at the old/new Maple Leaf Gardens in the provincial capital city. According to one observer : “Unfortunately, the race has been incredibly dull in terms of candidates and substance, and the party is unlikely to see any spike in the polls once a new leader is in place.”

The other side of this argument is that no one expects to be entertained by Ontario politics. And polls on any branch of the subject are usually somewhat suspect, until a few weeks before a given general election. (For one thing, there is a congenital confusion between federal and provincial politics in the minds of many “Canada First” Ontario voters.)

However you look at it, Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne are the current front runners. There seems a very strong chance that, for at least a short time, the next Ontario Liberal leader will also qualify as the province’s first female premier.

Kathleen Wynne is cheered by supporters after announcing her intention to run for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party at a rally in Toronto on Monday November 5, 2012. Frank Gunn / CP.

Moreover: “A female premier in Ontario would join five other women at the helm of their provinces or territories: Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland, Pauline Marois in Quebec, Alison Redford in Alberta, Christy Clark in British Columbia and Eva Aariak in Nunavut.” If this does happen, “87 per cent of Canadians” will be “represented by a woman at the provincial level.”

More technically, the results of this past weekend’s elected delegate selection for the January 25–27 convention are : Sandra Pupatello, 504 ;  Kathleen Wynne, 463 ; Gerard Kennedy, 257 ; Harinder Takhar, 244 ; Charles Sousa, 198 ;  Eric Hoskins, 104 ; Unpledged delegates, 67.

“Most” of the unpledged delegates “had been committed to Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray, who dropped out Thursday [January 10] to endorse Wynne.” If these unpledged delegates “follow Murray to Wynne the two front-runners are in a dead heat.” A further wrinkle is that 16 delegates are as yet unallocated. (“A tiebreaker will be held later this week in the riding of Durham to determine where that riding’s delegates go.”)

Gerard Kennedy. Dave Thomas, Toronto Sun/QMI Agency.

More importantly, the 1,853 elected convention delegates chosen this past weekend will be joined at the January 25–27 convention by an additional  “419 ex-officios — MPPs and party brass” (Toronto Star) or “about 600 former MPPs, MPs, party executives and other ‘ex-officio’ Liberals” (Canadian Press), to finally choose the new party leader and (again for a short while at least) the next Ontario premier.

The current best guess would seem to be that either Ms Pupatello or Ms Wynne will finally emerge as the next Ontario Liberal party leader and first female Ontario premier over the January 25–27 weekend. For reasons that everyone knows but no one wants to talk too much about, if you had to bet money right now Sandra Pupatello would probably be your best bet. At the same time, it is certainly far too early to write off Kathleen Wynne. And there would even seem a vague chance that Gerard Kennedy (who did quite well in two late 2012 Forum Research polls, among”all Ontarians” and “Liberal supporters”) might ultimately triumph — reversing the scenario under which he lost to Dalton McGuinty in 1996.

1. Harinder Takhar’s big surprise

“Harinder Takhar has cast himself as a self-made man who arrived in Canada nearly four decades ago, writes Martin Regg Cohn.” DAVE CHIDLEY/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO.

The election of Ontario Liberal leadership delegates over this past weekend did have one big surprise. And that was the strong fourth-place finish of the somewhat tarnished McGuinty cabinet minister Harinder Takhar.

Just before the delegate selection last week,  the always interesting Hershell Ezrin, like virtually all other Liberal insiders, was thinking out loud (on Ontario News Watch) that Mr. Takhar would likely finish last. In fact he finished a strong fourth, with 244 delegates, just behind Gerard Kennedy’s 257.

Mr. Takhar’s surprising strength reflects the growing muscle of Ontario’s growing South Asian community — in the provincial Liberal Party and beyond. And who can deny that this is good news for both the Ontario Liberals and the province at large?

There are those, however, who view Mr. Takhar as “arguably the least-qualified candidate … the veteran politician who was demoted to a junior cabinet post in 2006 for violating the Members’ Integrity Act (flouting conflict of interest rules over a blind trust for his personal assets). “

Pooja Handa, the real queen of cp24 TV in 2013, would make a much more attractive Ontario Liberal leader than Harinder Takhar, but alas she is not running.

Martin Regg Cohn at the Toronto Star had already raised doubts about Harinder Takhar on this kind of ground. On January 15  he added some fuel to the fire in “Harinder Takhar as deputy premier is a scary thought.”

Cohn concludes with : “The Takhar campaign is run by smart, talented people — gifted organizers who tapped into Sikh temples, networks of truck drivers, sports clubs and seniors’ associations to sign up new party members … They just deserve a better candidate.”

Mr. Cohn does have a few new disturbing things to report. But, say what you like, Harinder Takhar is the candidate these particular smart, talented people have in 2013. (Too bad it wasn’t Pooja Handa from cp 24!) And even democratic politics in Ontario is a cynical blood sport, as has long been recognized by all concerned, etc, etc, etc, etc …..

2. The Oscar Wilde Coalition?

Glen Murray and Kathleen Wynne.

One reason for guessing that Sandra Pupatello will finally win out over Kathleen Wynne is that “Wynne is … closely associated with the government, but is also very well liked, a rare principled politician … Unfortunately, the Liberals and even the media are afraid of having an honest conversation about her sexuality …  Wynne is openly gay and while some voters … may not have an issue with that …  others will … are Ontarians ready for a gay premier? … Wynne supporters have pointed out the positive results of her campaign in the rural parts of the province [at this past weekend’s delegate selection] … but these aren’t average voters, they’re card carrying Liberals.”

The Toronto Centre MPP (and former Winnipeg mayor) Glen Murray, who dropped out Thursday [January 10] to endorse Kathleen Wynne, is openly gay too. It may be that he has in some (perhaps quite slight?) degree turned her camp into a kind of gay coalition, that might quickly find it has reached its maximum level of support when the convention voting begins on January 26?

On the other hand, the antidote to all this may be that Ms Wynne “ is also very well liked” and “a rare principled politician.” (On the other hand again, there is as well the unfortunate precedent of the 2010 Toronto municipal election, where the openly gay former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman was soundly defeated by the aggressively right-wing loose canon Rob Ford, beyond the narrow boundaries of the inner city core.)

George Smitherman and Rob Ford at a debate in Toronto mayoralty race, October 2010.

For another more positive take on what may or may not be the 2013 Ontario Liberals’ Oscar Wilde Coalition, see Aidan Johnson in the January 15 Hamilton Spectator : “We’ve come a long way, Ontario … In 1994, the provincial Liberals killed a gay-rights bill. Today …”

Whatever else, Mr. Johnson notes: “One sign of progress is that all of the Liberal candidates for premier appear to be gay-positive. Further, an out [and out?] gay person has already served as leader of a party in Canada: André Boisclair (Parti Québécois). He was Quebec’s Leader of the Opposition … And in November, past Ontario’s southern border, Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin as the first openly gay Senator in the United States.”

3. Does it help if Dwight Duncan gives up his seat for Sandra Pupatello?

Former Windsor West MPP Sandra Pupatello (L) and Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Dwight Duncan (R) pose for a photo at a press conference in Windsor, Ont. in August 2011. Tyler Brownbridge / The Windsor Star.

Sandra Pupatello arguably has two further advantages over Kathleen Wynne. First, she “did not run in the 2011 provincial election and took a position as director of business and global markets at Price Waterhouse Coopers” instead — which means she can at least rhetorically get out from under the most recent alleged sins of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal minority government, elected on October 6, 2011.

Second, unlike Ms. Wynne (and all four other four candidates still in the race, for that matter) Ms. Pupatello, originally from and representing the auto city of Windsor, Ontario — just south of Detroit, Michigan — can reasonably claim to be NOT from the Greater Toronto Area.

The first of Sandra Pupatello’s advantages here is shared by Gerard Kennedy, who left the McGuinty cabinet as long ago as 2006, for a subsequent somewhat chequered career in federal politics. Both Kennedy and Pupatello, however, also share the comparative disadvantage of not at the moment having a seat in the Ontario Legislative Assembly (as do all four of their opponents). And this could be seen as a significant disadvantage in the present Ontario minority parliament, hungry to get back to business after Dalton McGuinty’s much criticized prorogation this past fall.

Finance minister Dwight Duncan has apparently indicated that he would quickly resign his Windsor area seat, to make room for his friend and neighbour Sandra Pupatello in a by-election, if she does finally win the leadership. Does this give her some advantage over Gerard Kennedy? Maybe, but maybe not? According to recent press reports on Kennedy:”Two Liberal MPPs have offered to resign to free up a seat for him if he becomes premier at the Jan. 26 convention.”

4. Why is Andrea Horwath suddenly talking about Liberal-NDP co-operation?

Andrea Horwath — sometimes a tricky lady?

On January 15 a few intriguing press reports suggested “Ontario Liberal leadership: Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath leave door open to Liberal-NDP cooperation” and “Horwath open to working with Liberals, not ruling out coalition.”

It seems that New Democrats would be happier thinking this way if Kathleen Wynne becomes the new Liberal leader, since she is seen as more ideologically progressive, in some sense New Democrats find congenial.

Yet according to the Toronto Star:”While Hudak sounds eager to head to the polls, Horwath said another $300 million vote would not go over well with the public … ‘My preference is to sit down with whoever is elected (Liberal leader) and to get some things done for Ontarians,’ she said, noting the NDP extracted concessions from McGuinty in last spring’s budget to ensure the minority government didn’t fall … ‘I’m not overly interested in the details of what that looks like in terms of structure,’ said Horwath when asked repeatedly about a coalition government … ‘I don’t think you necessarily have to have a structure to do that … you just need goodwill.’”

Similarly : Kathleen “Wynne …said she would co-operate with Horwath or Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak … ‘I’ve never talked about a formal coalition, but what I have said is that I would be reaching out to both Tim and Andrea,’ the Don Valley West MPP told the Star editorial board …”.

Tim Hudak — what if he won a quick election?

At the same time, Sandtra Pupatello “said Tuesday she would only go so far to appease the opposition … ‘Of course I am ready to sit down with Andrea and Tim in order to see what common ground there is on achieving what I, and the Liberal party, believe we need — a determined focus on jobs and the economy,’ she said … ‘But I am not interested in a coalition nor is any Liberal I have talked to across the province. Liberals believe in a number of different things than the NDP, including the need for sound fiscal management, innovation and productivity.’”

The most interesting bit of political intelligence here may be that Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats are starting to become concerned that a fresh Ontario election too soon after the Liberals choose their new leader might just be too much of a good chance for the increasingly wildly right-wing Hudak Conservatives (especially with the Ontario teacher issue making Hudak’s false siren songs increasingly attractive to growing numbers of voters who have forgotten Mike Harris ????). Personally, I’d be happy to see more Liberal-NDP co-operation, for whatever reasons. And I think this would be in the broader public interest of the people of Ontario too.

5. Ontario teacher issue sidebars

All this is going on far too long (again!!).

Here are just two quick further references to the Ontario teacher issue, and its implications for the Ontario Liberal present and future:

* WARREN KINSELLA … “Ontario Grit leadership candidates play a dangerous game” (and note that Mr.Kinsella is a supporter of Sandra Pupatello)  ;

* “Dalton McGuinty’s education legacy will outlive Bill 115 travails” … (by Charles Pascal, who served as Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education and Training under Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government in the first half of the 1990s).

6. The great media confusion about ex-officio delegates

Former cabinet minister Charles Sousa kisses his wife, Zenaida, as he launches his campaign for Ontario's Liberal leadership in Mississauga back in November 2012. RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR.

Finally, there seems some considerable media confusion over just how many Liberal party “ex-officios” will be joining the 1,853 elected delegates, to chose the new party leader on Saturday, January 26. I am in no position to resolve this confusion myself. But I can quickly document it:

* According to the CBC : “About 400 ex-officio delegates — made up of party bigwigs current and former MPPs — will form the rest.”

* According to the Toronto Star (and the Waterlo Region Record) : “ Those elected delegates plus 419 ex officios — including MPPs, defeated candidates, Ontario Liberal MPs, and party bigwigs — will directly cast ballots for the leadership hopeful to replace McGuinty.”

Dr. Eric Hoskins now lives and represents a riding in Toronto. But he grew up in the much more rural centre of Simcoe, Ontario. His “Respect for Rural Ontario”plan “features 25 initiatives to support rural Ontario, including a review of the horse racing industry.”

* According to the Sun News Network: “Another 500 ex-officio delegates drawn from MPPs, defeated candidates and other Liberal insiders will make up the rest of the 2,300 who will choose a replacement for Premier Dalton McGuinty.”.

* According to the Canadian Press (in sources as far away from Ontario as the Victoria Times-Colonist!) :”The delegates will be joined by about 600 former MPPs, MPs, party executives and other ‘ex-officio’ Liberals eligible to vote for the new leader, who will automatically become Ontario’s next premier.”

* According to NOW magazine in Toronto: “On top of the delegates who took part in the voting this weekend there are another 400 to 800 ex-officio delegates (depending on whose numbers you believe), whose votes are also up for grabs. Those didn’t have to declare which of the candidates they’re voting for.”

Ontario Liberal party leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello (left) listens as Kathleen Wynne speaks during a forum in Toronto on January 10. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press.

We should know the correct answer by the weekend of January 25–27.

Meanwhile I can report that “419 ex officio delegates (current and forner Liberal MPPs, recent defeated candidates, party officials, and federal Liberal MPs for Ontario)” is also the number given by “Ontario Liberal Party leadership election, 2013 … From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”— along with the Toronto Star and the Waterloo Region Record.  If someone put a gun to my head and said I had to guess the correct number myself, at this exact moment I think I would probably choose 419 too.

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