The Ontario Liberals are in for at least four long years of rebuilding and soul-searching after a historic defeat in Thursday’s provincial election.
With just seven seats remaining from the 55 they enjoyed before the election, the road back looks bleak, especially with the Liberals losing recognized party status.
But the Liberal Party has shown in the past that it can come back strong from a disastrous result.
“The party’s fortunes, especially for the Liberals, can turn around very quickly,” said political science professor Nelson Wiseman.
Wiseman, of the University of Toronto, points out that the Liberals need only look to the federal party for evidence that they can come roaring back in 2022.
The federal Liberals suffered a similarly crushing defeat in 2011, only to rebound with new leader Justin Trudeau in 2015. Trudeau and his party improved from just 34 seats to 184 and a majority government.
“That all happened in less than 77 days,” Wiseman said.
A new leader
The first order of business for the Grits will be addressing the vacancy at the top, following Kathleen Wynne’s resignation as party leader.
“There is another generation and I am passing the torch to that generation,” she said in her concession speech Thursday night.
Wynne’s departure came as no surprise, after she acknowledged last weekend that she would no longer be premier after June 7.
Brockville Mayor David Henderson was the first to throw his hat into the ring this week, albeit with the caveat that he win his riding of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands.
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“I think that it is a healthy thing in a democratic system to have people who aspire to lead,” Wynne said in response to Henderson’s announcement.
“I hope there are other Liberals in the province who, somewhere in the back of their mind, are thinking: ‘One day I might want to be the leader as well.'”
Henderson ultimately did not win his riding.
Yasir Naqvi, whom some have floated as another potential leadership candidate, was also dealt a setback when he lost to the NDP’s Joel Harden in Ottawa Centre.
A time-tested brand
The federal Progressive Conservatives suffered an even more crushing defeat in 1993, going from the governing party to one with just two seats in the House of Commons.
The Progressive Conservatives never fully recovered from that defeat. Instead, after battling for votes for a decade with the right-leaning Canadian Alliance Party, the two agreed to a merger and became the Conservative Party of Canada, under the leadership of future prime minister Stephen Harper.
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Wiseman doesn’t see any mergers or name changes in the Ontario Liberals’ future, because there simply isn’t another party to merge with.
“The Liberal brand is fairly resilient,” Wiseman said.
“You’ve been at Queen’s Park since Confederation, so that’s worth something. You don’t just dump that.”
Four years to rebuild
Wiseman says the Liberals stand a better chance of rebuilding during a Tory government than they would have under the NDP, because they can present a more clear-cut alternative to the ruling party in 2022.
“There’s greater brand differentiation now because the Liberals are a lot more like the NDP right now,” Wiseman said.
He pointed to the federal Liberals’ major comeback in 2015, which occurred after a Conservative majority, as the most striking example of capitalizing on this desire for change.
“The best arrangement for the Liberals is when the Conservatives are in power,” he said.
Either way, the Liberals are in for a rough ride at Queen’s Park these next few years.
The back benches
Perhaps the most damaging result of this election for the Liberals will be losing recognized party status.
With fewer than eight seats, the Liberals will no longer be called on during Question Period, and will be restricted to asking questions every few weeks from the back benches of the legislature.
They’ll also lose access to research funding, which will put more strain on the party coffers as they work on their comeback.
“It’s not a sunny future,” Wiseman said.