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Three areas Crombie must address for Liberals to beat the PCs

If Crombie’s Liberals are able to move-the-needle in these three areas, they might just be able to topple Ford’s Conservatives come 2026. The clock is ticking.

Published Dec 20, 2023 at 7:20pm

Andrew Perez
Andrew Perez
Three areas Crombie must address for Liberals to beat the PCs

The Ontario Liberal Party is at an inflection point.

After two devastating election losses and a failure to secure party status, Ontario’s Liberals are once again rising from the ashes of electoral oblivion. But this time is different: the party has a spring in its step and reason to feel buoyant about a rebuilding process that could ultimately see it compete for power in 2026.

Enter Bonnie Crombie, Mississauga’s outgoing mayor.

Elected on Dec. 2 to lead Ontario’s Liberals, Crombie might become the party’s most transformative leader in a generation with the potential to immediately shake up Ontario’s political landscape.

READ MORECrombie pushes back against PC attacks after first caucus meeting as new Liberal leader

Crombie ticks off all the boxes for a party desperate to become relevant again: a strong woman, telegenic, a gifted communicator and is seen as a centrist Liberal armed with governing experience running one of Canada’s largest municipalities for a decade.

And her election comes on the heels of a year that saw glimmers of momentum for the once dominant party: Liberals unexpectedly won two by-elections, significantly increased their membership tally to more than 100,000 and oversaw a competitive leadership contest accompanied by unprecedented fundraising dollars.

The party’s renewed energy comes at a time when Doug Ford’s Conservative government is besieged by the Greenbelt land swap scandal and the resulting RCMP investigation. Yet an Abacus poll released on the eve of Crombie’s win gave Ford’s Tories a nearly 20-point advantage over the leaderless Liberals.

The Abacus poll is a potent reminder that Ford’s brand of Conservatism still reigns supreme in Ontario. If Crombie’s Liberals are to break Ford’s juggernaut come the 2026 election, their approach must go far beyond merely capitalizing on the government’s myriad of failures.

If they’re to take a page out of Justin Trudeau’s book — catapulting from third to first place — Crombie’s Liberals must do three things:

Forge a new brand of Liberalism

The Liberal brand has become anathema to voters from across the Canadian political spectrum. It’s difficult to think of a moment in my lifetime when federal and provincial Liberal parties faced such long odds.

Trudeau’s Liberals now trail Poilievre’s Conservatives by double-digits in virtually all polling over the past six months. Most polls foretell a Liberal collapse in English Canada with the party only sustained by durable support in Quebec.

The prospects for most provincial Liberal parties are more dire. Only Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon territory are governed by Liberal administrations. West of Ontario, provincial Liberal parties are virtually non-existent continuing their slide into irrelevance. In Quebec, the provincial Liberal Party remains in a distant fourth place.

If Crombie’s Liberals are to become relevant in Canada’s largest province, the Liberal brand must undergo an overhaul involving more than a fresh coat of paint and new logo. Building a new brand identity should be less about where the party sits on the left-right political spectrum, and more about taking concrete steps to change the way Liberals can be perceived.

In recent years, Liberal parties have increasingly catered to white collar workers in large urban centres dubbed the “lap top class.” While federal Liberal programs on childcare and the environment have benefitted Canadians across diverse socioeconomic lines, the party has done a poor job communicating these policies to working class voters. The corollary has been a tendency to talk down to people leaving the impression of a “Liberal Party knows best” attitude.

Perceptions of out-of-touch Liberals eager to virtue signal and leverage identity politics for electoral gain were hardened throughout the pandemic due to the divisive rhetoric of some Liberal politicians. These impressions have had negative downstream impacts on provincial Liberal parties, particularly in rural and small-town Ontario where vaccination rates were lower and pandemic lockdowns more contentious.

Crombie must quickly win back many of these traditionally-Liberal voters through her consensus-oriented approach to politics, uniting a diverse coalition of voters behind a movement distinct from Trudeau’s brand. Crombie’s early focus on expanding the party’s reach far beyond urban centres is promising.

Consult outside policy experts

Crombie’s Liberals must forge an ambitious policy framework if they’re going to be seen as a credible alternative. Throughout the leadership campaign, the Mississauga mayor impressed party members and observers through detailed policy planks addressing the housing affordability crisis and Ontario’s strained public healthcare and education systems. Crombie has also demonstrated a willingness to speak passionately about economic growth and competitiveness: topics most Liberals have all but ignored for more than a decade.

READ MOREOntario Liberal leadership: Crombie wins on third ballot

History shows that Liberal parties are at their best when they’re seen as relentless reformers. Crombie has already demonstrated her commitment to a robust policy agenda by promising a policy thinkers conference in 2024. The new leader and her advisors would do well to make the party’s policy renewal process a signature priority over the next two years.

Ms. Crombie only need speak with successful Liberal leaders like Jean Chretien and Dalton McGuinty about the pivotal role sweeping policy renewal can play on the long road back to power.

In 1991, Chretien and his team convened a policy thinkers conference in Aylmer, Quebec where Liberals formally rejected the economic nationalism and protectionism of the Pearson-Trudeau era — instead embracing free trade and globalization as a remedy to the early 1990s recession. The prevailing global ideas that reached consensus in Aylmer became foundational policies of the Chretien’s government throughout its decade in power.

After losing the 1999 Ontario election to Mike Harris, Dalton McGuinty engaged in a similar exercise. McGuinty travelled to the U.S. and the U.K. to learn how centrist parties had wielded progressive policy agendas to defeat conservative governments. In 2001, McGuinty organized a policy retreat in Niagara Falls like Chretien’s Aylmer conference a decade prior. The public education, healthcare and environmental policies that McGuinty’s team developed throughout this process went on to shape the government’s agenda from 2003-2012.

Crombie and her advisors should strive to be as ambitious as Chretien and McGuinty were in seeking outside advice on the future direction of their parties.

Professionalize fundraising

Doug Ford’s Conservatives benefit from a massive fundraising advantage over Ontario’s Liberals in a political environment where a party’s ability to fundraise effectively is closely tied to its electoral success.

READ MORECrombie seeks to raise $1 million for Ontario Liberals by end of year

One aspect of Crombie’s appeal is her ability to fundraise at a professional level. By the end of the leadership race, she had brought in more money than nearly all her rivals combined: an impressive feat for a party that Ford’s Conservatives are out-fundraising by a 10-1 margin.

It’s critical that Crombie leverage her fundraising prowess to ensure Liberals are election-ready from a financial perspective. That’s because the 2026 election will be the third Ontario election where corporations, unions and other non-person entities are banned from donating to political parties and candidates under party finance reforms introduced by the former Wynne government.

More recently, Ford’s Tories doubled the maximum annual donation for individuals to $3300 while introducing tighter restrictions limiting advertising spending for Liberal-friendly unions and third-party organizations. Both reforms were seen as a means by Ford’s government to undercut the Ontario Liberal Party. If Crombie’s Liberals are to be on a level-playing field in 2026, they must urgently professionalize their grassroots fundraising apparatus, no longer relying on support from third parties.

Ontario’s Liberals have enjoyed more momentum in the past six months than in the nearly six years since their cataclysmic 2018 defeat. Impressive by-election wins, unprecedented fundraising and a new dynamic leader have put wind in the party’s sails. But catapulting from third to first place in 2026 – as Trudeau’s Liberals did eight years ago – will require a new distinct brand, outside-the-box policies and a far better fundraising machine.

If Crombie’s Liberals are able to move-the-needle in these three areas, they might just be able to topple Ford’s Conservatives come 2026. The clock is ticking.

Andrew Perez is a public affairs strategist, freelance writer and political commentator. He supported Bonnie Crombie’s successful bid for the Ontario Liberal leadership.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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