COMMENTARY: How Ontario’s Liberals can rebuild
Ed. note — This commentary by Liberal insider Omar Khan is one of three written by supporters of the three main parties in the Ontario election. We also have commentaries from NDP supporter Tom Parkin and PC supporter Deb Hutton.
The Ontario election is now over and the ballots have been counted. Doug Ford earned a clear majority mandate and will be our premier for the next four years.
All parties need to respect this. Premier-designate Ford is now embarking on one of the most respected processes in the Canadian political system, a peaceful and orderly transition of government.
So, what do Ontario Liberals do now? I, for one, look to the words of Wilfred Laurier for inspiration: “For my part, I belong to the Liberal Party. If it be wrong to be a Liberal, I accept the reproach: if it be a crime to be Liberal, then I am guilty of it. … I only ask one thing: that we be judged according to our principles. … Before all, however, it is important to come to an understanding upon the meaning, value and bearing of the word ‘Liberal.’”
Laurier offered these words on June 26, 1877, as he spoke to members of Le Club Canadien in Quebec City, on the then-revolutionary topic of liberalism.
At the time, the idea of liberalism was deemed a radical threat to Quebec’s conservative and religious elites. The Liberal Party in Quebec was lost in the wilderness, having suffered a string of political defeats over 25 years.
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Laurier laid the groundwork for Liberal revival by stating clearly what the party held dear at the time: political freedom, respect for the Crown, the continuance of Canada’s democratic institutions and religious tolerance.
The speech was considered a masterstroke, as it clearly set out the guiding principles for liberalism in Quebec and set the stage for the rise of Laurier onto the national political stage.
As Ontario Liberals come to terms with last week’s defeat, and begin to think about the future, there are lessons to be learned from Laurier’s approach in that sweltering hall in Quebec City some 140 years ago: have a clear message that is relevant to the times and be unapologetic in promoting it, even if it goes against established conventional wisdom. This strategy helped lay the groundwork for the sustained rise of liberalism, not only in Quebec but across the rest of Canada as well.
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After the events of last week, Ontario Liberals could be excused for feeling a bit down and out. There will be many opinions discussing and debating what went wrong. This is healthy because understanding how Liberals lost the trust of Ontarians will be critical if the party is to move forward with rebuilding.
Winning back Ontarians and their trust will be a slow process, but it can be done.
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It begins with defining what liberalism means in today’s world and making the term relevant to the lives of the people of this province, just as Laurier did in Quebec so long ago.
During the past campaign, the Progressive Conservatives presented a clear and consistent narrative with a simple message that connected to voters and their day-to-day anxieties. The Liberal message, on the other hand, was not always consistent.
This was partially due to the fast-changing dynamics of the campaign itself and the addition of the Ford factor, followed by a rise in NDP support.
Nevertheless, Liberals weren’t able to clearly define their values in a way that was relatable to most Ontarians.
Between now and the next provincial election in 2022, Ontario Liberals need to define a mission statement that lays out in clear terms what liberalism means in the modern Ontario context.
This cannot be a top-down process. The party is no longer in government and cannot rely on support from senior civil servants and political consultants. Out of necessity, Liberals will need to rely more and more on volunteers to help drive their agenda forward.
This is OK. Liberal Party grassroots have come up with some marquee ideas before. At the federal level, these include Party resolutions pressuring former prime minister Paul Martin’s government not to participate in the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence Program, pushing for the implementation of equal marriage laws, and calling for the legalization of recreational cannabis use for adults.
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At the provincial level, the party grassroots helped define key initiatives, including the implementation of a two-year tuition freeze for post-secondary education and the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation.
Liberalism in Ontario has a long and proud history. It was the Ontario Liberal Party that first implemented pay equity and freedom of information legislation in the 1980s. It was the Ontario Liberal Party that created the greenbelt, ensuring generations to come can benefit from green space and healthy, locally produced food.
It was the Ontario Liberal Party that led the charge nationally for pension reform, ensuring more seniors can retire in dignity. It was the Ontario Liberal Party that capped class sizes in elementary schools so kids would get the attention they needed.
Ontario Liberals have much to be proud of. It is now time to build on this history by truly empowering the party grassroots to redefine liberalism in this province in a way that imagines a future that Ontarians want to live in. It’s been done before and it’ll be done again — just like Laurier was able to do in Quebec so long ago.
Omar Khan is a vice president of public affairs with Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Toronto. He worked for several Ontario cabinet ministers for over a decade at Queen’s Park and is currently the vice president of engagement for the Ontario Liberal Party.