Jonathan Malloy is the Bell Chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University.
The Liberal Party of Ontario has – to put it lightly – fallen on hard times.
In last week’s provincial election, the Ontario Liberal Party once again came in third place, and while its 2018 wipeout was bad enough, a repeat – winning just one more seat than when it recorded its worst showing in party history – is truly humiliating. Before the 2018 election, the party could boast that it had won every election since the beginning of the 21st century, governing Ontario for 15 years. Now, it has proven itself unable to even recapture official party status in the provincial legislature.
Now, pundits are mulling the party’s failures, and even the merits of a potential merger with the Ontario NDP. Its leader, Steven Del Duca, has already resigned. But like the proverbial cockroach in a nuclear war, the Liberal brand has remarkable staying power in Canada – and it would be premature to predict the Ontario Liberals’ demise.
Certainly, other provincial Liberal parties elsewhere in the country have hit fallow periods. In the Prairie provinces, the last Liberal government was elected in 1967 in Saskatchewan; the mightiest left standing in the region are the Manitoba Liberals, who hold just three seats. The Liberal parties in British Columbia and Quebec are stronger, but operate in different political universes, bearing only a passing resemblance to the Liberals in the rest of the country. Only in Atlantic Canada are traditional Liberals still thriving and there have been struggles even there; the PEI Liberals are currently in a trough as the third party.
But the actual death of the Liberals, in various forms across Canada, has been wrongly predicted before. “The future of the Liberal party in Ontario must be bleak,” wrote political scientists John Wilson and David Hoffman – in 1970. In another 1974 paper, Mr. Wilson argued that provincial party systems had natural stages of development, in which traditional parties fuelled by religion and patronage were gradually replaced with class-based parties of the left and right. As the centrist party, he suggested, the Liberals were destined to be the inevitable losers. But while the Ontario Liberals had a terrible run all the way from the 1940s to the 1980s, they came back from the dead in 1985, and after some miscalculations in the 1990s, returned to glory in the province.
Capital-L Liberalism continues to thrive in Canada federally despite many predictions, particularly after 2011, when the federal Liberals delivered their worst result since Confederation and seemed destined for oblivion. But while by many measures the Liberal Party shouldn’t really exist, it persists. In his recent book The Canadian Party System, Richard Johnston calls Canada “a deviant case” internationally; no other similar country has a perpetually dominant centrist party like the Liberals. And Kenneth Carty, the University of British Columbia professor emeritus in political science, calls the federal Liberals “an unnatural party,” too: he writes in Big Tent Politics that the successes of the party are fundamentally about its ability to span both ideological and regional cleavages across Canada. While the latter is less relevant for the Ontario party, it can still derive comfort from its federal cousin’s perpetual durability in the political centre.
Arguably, the Ontario Liberals have simply had a run of exceptionally bad luck. In retrospect, the party made a poor choice in choosing the charisma-challenged Mr. Del Duca as leader, just a week before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. But at the time, the 2022 election was projected to be a referendum on the stormy and erratic Doug Ford. Choosing an experienced but dull leader like Mr. Del Duca – the exact opposite of Mr. Ford – made some sense. But Mr. Ford’s PCs have shown an ability to grow – or at least make it look like they have grown – and the incumbents’ ideological mushiness also made it harder for any other party to set out a distinctive contrasting vision. The Liberals had extraordinary luck back in 2011 and 2014, two elections in which they started from behind and came back to win; now, the winds happen to be blowing the other way.
It remains unclear, too, whether the Ontario NDP will be able to engineer a true political realignment. While it may have surpassed the Liberals once again to become the Official Opposition, the NDP also failed to gain any traction against Mr. Ford, dropping nine seats – suggesting that the Liberals aren’t alone in struggling against the Ontario PCs. We also cannot forget the remarkable and somewhat inexplicable pattern in which Ontario almost always chooses a different governing party than the ruling federal party. If this trend continues, then as long as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals run Ottawa, the Ontario Liberals will always be at a disadvantage.
Ultimately, though, the life and death of political parties is not determined by tactical blunders: It’s fundamentally decided by the electorate, and specifically whether it feels the existing array of parties offers sufficient choice. And for decades the Ontario electorate has been almost bizarrely content with its three main options. No other party saw an MPP elected to the legislature between 1951 and 2018, when Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner won Guelph. No other provincial party system has been so remarkably stable, and this stability provides crucial space for the Liberals to retool and wait out the inevitable cycles of Ontario politics.
The Ontario Liberals certainly face a long road ahead. But it is too early to make any prediction of their untimely demise.
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