Over the weekend, Ontario Liberals did the anticipated and elected Bonnie Crombie as their new leader. The current Mississauga Mayor and former MP led from the first round and won with 53.4% on the third ballot.
All leadership elections signal a refresh for their parties. With Ms. Crombie’s election, the Liberals hope for a reset that will bring them back to party status and enable them to compete for power in the next election in three years. Her strategic positioning during the leadership campaign signaled her belief that the path back to power is through more balanced policies that will help the Liberals regain the centre of the Ontario political spectrum, taking votes from both the Conservatives on the right and the NDP on the left.
With the exception of a last-minute attempt to create an “anybody but” dynamic to stop the front-runner, the campaign trail was largely friendly and devoid of much drama, as candidates debated numerous times across the province. In addition to Crombie, four others stepped forward in a bid to lead the party – each with a compelling background:
- Nate Erskine-Smith, current Member of Parliament for Beaches East-York, a pragmatist known for occasionally veering from party lines during parliamentary votes. He finished second on the final ballot with 46.6%;
- Yasir Naqvi, current Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre and former Ontario Attorney General in Kathleen Wynne’s government – the first Muslim and first person of colour to hold that position;
- Ted Hsu, self-described “nice guy” and consensus builder, a Princeton University PhD graduate in physics, former Member of Parliament, and sitting MPP for Kingston and the IsIands;
- Adil Shamji, medical doctor and the second of two candidates who are current Members of Provincial Parliament, holding the seat in Don Valley East. Shamji dropped out of the race partway through and endorsed Crombie.
This leadership race was the first in Ontario Liberal history that used a “one member, one vote” system in which voters ranked their preferred leader from first to last. Leadership voters cast their ballots in-person across the province one week prior to the votes being counted and announced in Toronto.
From the outset, Bonnie Crombie was viewed as the front runner, owing in large part to her high profile and fundraising prowess. Nate Erskine-Smith and Yasir Naqvi, responding to her lead in fundraising and public opinion polls – as well as controversial comments pertaining to the Greenbelt – accused Crombie of being “Doug Ford-lite.” An agreement between Yasir and Nate, which encouraged their supporters to rank the other as their second choice on the ballot, mattered little in the end. When Naqvi was knocked off the ballot after the second round, enough of his supporters still moved to Crombie to put her over the top on the third ballot.
Ultimately, the results show that Ontario Liberals believe Bonnie Crombie was the best choice to beat Doug Ford in the next election. Her experience in business and federal politics, her record as the leader of Ontario’s third largest city, the presumption that she will immediately swing some western GTA seats into play for the Liberals, her centrist policy positions, and, perhaps most of all, her ability to garner media attention that Ontario Liberals have sorely lacked, swung many party voters.
While the Tories launched an immediate post-election effort to paint Crombie as a rich, out-of-touch jetsetter, it may prove a hard sell. Crombie’s story of growing up with her Polish-immigrant mother and grandmother in a rooming house in Parkdale contrasts strongly with Doug Ford’s upbringing in a wealthy and politically connected family.
Early on, Crombie expressed an interest in establishing a centrist, big tent party under which all Ontarians would feel welcome. Her policies like provincial rebates on development charges suggest a housing provider-friendly approach to the housing crisis, and her health and education policies are classically Liberal – ensuring the stability of the public payer health system and creating smaller class sizes in schools. Her positioning suggests that she sees the party’s fortune in siphoning votes away from the PCs rather than just jostling with the NDP for the progressive vote.
Her name recognition is strongest in Mississauga, of course, but also carries weight in key Peel and GTA ridings, as well as across the province. Her experience in both federal and municipal politics means she’ll be able to navigate tough conversations for the province. Her shrewd political maneuvering resulted in the dissolution of Peel Region into individual cities, a move by the Ford government intended to pacify her and keep her in the newly-independent Mississauga. The Mayor then turned around and announced her intent to run for Liberal leadership anyway, setting her sights on Doug Ford’s office.
After her win, Crombie announced that she would be stepping down as Mayor of Mississauga in the new year. While no one has formally announced their intent to run for the role, expect a crowded race full of familiar names and faces, and some new ones too. Whoever is elected in the Mississauga mayoral by-election will find themselves behind the wheel as the city heads into a new era as a single-tier, independent municipality.
Crombie’s next task is to secure a seat in the Legislature, although when and in what riding remains to be seen. Bonnie would prefer to contest a seat in Mississauga to maximize her name recognition and voter mobilization. However, all but one of the Mississauga seats are held by the PCs, who would have no incentive to give Crombie a chance at her first provincial win. She may have to wait until the next general election to throw her hat in the ring.
In the interim, the new Liberal leader will take the opportunity to travel around Ontario, engaging potential voters at a grassroots level, hearing about the local issues that will shape her policies. While she won’t be able to confront Premier Doug Ford and his Ministers during Question Period, it may be a wiser use of her time to meet with real voters around Ontario and build a profile outside of Queen’s Park instead of being forced to adhere to strict legislative schedules.
Crombie takes on the leadership during a challenging time. While the OLP has bolstered its ranks since the 2022 provincial election, the party still does not have enough elected MPPs for recognition of official party status, losing out on key resources and privileges in the Legislature.
Still, thanks in large part to the work of Interim Leader John Fraser, Crombie takes over a caucus and party in a much stronger position than in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 election. Party membership is at an all-time high, and the leadership race reinvigorated many moribund local riding associations.
Two of three recent by-elections have resulted in wins for the Ontario Liberals. (And while they faded to fourth in the recent Kitchener-Centre by-election, the incumbent NDP lost their seat and the Tories fared a little better against a local Green upsurge that backed a popular city councillor).
This leadership came out at a defining point in the party’s history. Another 2022 style disaster for the party could send the Ontario Liberal Party down the road to irrelevance. Reversing course could put them back to where they believe they should be, in the vital centre of Ontario politics.
Can the Ontario Liberals, under new leadership, regain the confidence of voters and position itself as the next Official Opposition or even government of Ontario? While only time will tell, Bonnie Crombie has certainly earned her chance to transform Ontario politics.
Hats off to the runners-up in the race, and congratulations to the new Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, Bonnie Crombie.
If you have questions about what this Bonnie Crombie’s leadership win means for your sector, business, or association, please reach out to the multi-partisan Counsel Public Affairs team.