TORONTO — Contenders to lead Ontario’s Liberals made their first pitches to rebuild the beleaguered party Thursday night, with each acknowledging the difficulty of the task ahead for the eventual winner.
Five of the six candidates took part in the party’s showcase event held at a downtown Toronto hotel, kicking off the race that will culminate in a leadership convention on March 7.
Former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca told the gathering that the Liberals need an experienced leader with a plan to rebuild the party in time to take on Premier Doug Ford in the 2022 election.
“We have literally watched our legacy be unravelled,” he said. “Pulled apart by Doug Ford and his friends. That’s not good enough for our province.”
Del Duca, who launched a plan for his first 100 days as leader earlier in the day, stressed that the party has just over two years to select candidates, fundraise and develop a comprehensive platform.
“My friends, this to me is the fight of our lives,” he said.
The Ontario Liberal party suffered the worst defeat in its history in 2018, losing official party status and prompting former premier and leader Kathleen Wynne’s resignation.
The Liberals took on $10 million in debt to help fund their election campaign, reporting earlier this year that $9.3 million of that amount had yet to be paid off.
Former social services minister Michael Coteau told the crowd the party must completely re-imagine itself and broaden its appeal to Ontarians.
“We have to stop letting people on the extreme side of issues control the debate here in Ontario,” he said. “Most Ontarians do not sit on those extremes. I want to restore decency and have politics reflect everyday Ontarians.”
Former education minister Mitzie Hunter said the party must build a “broad-based, modern coalition” and select a leader with diverse experience to take on Ford in the next election.
“In this moment we are choosing the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party,” she said. “And when we think about that, this is about the next premier, who will significantly contribute to a successful Ontario.”
Kate Graham, a former party candidate from London, Ont., said the party needs to show people it has learned from its defeat. That means earning back the trust of voters who supported both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives, she added.
“I’ve heard people say that winning means toning down our big ideas, that we moved too far left in the last election,” she said.
“I don’t think the Liberals moved too far to the left. I think Liberals moved too far inside the halls of Queen’s Park.”
Alvin Tedjo, a former party candidate who has proposed the merger of public and Catholic school boards, said the Liberals lost the last election because they stopped listening to people.
“We came across as a party that knew better than everybody else,” he said. “We need to find a way to get in touch with what people are asking us to do and we need to lead the way.”
Ottawa-based lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth, who entered the race just hours before the candidate registration cut-off last Friday, was not able to participate in the event because the party is still vetting her.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press