Last week’s coalition was a do-or-die move for both men. It may not deliver them the leadership, but doing nothing would be equally costly.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 13, 2023.
OTTAWA—The Ontario Liberal Party race went nuclear last week.
Just after a spirited candidates’ debate in Ottawa, two campaign teams announced they were joining forces in an attempt to beat front-runner, former Liberal MP and Mississauga Mayor, Bonnie Crombie.
Former Ontario Attorney-General and now Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi joined forces with fellow federal Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith in an attempt to deliver a one-two punch to Crombie.
On Nov. 9, just two weeks before voting begins, the pair held a press conference in front of Queen’s Park to deliver their message.
Each is calling upon his supporters to choose the other as their second choice in the single-person ranked ballot system. Both MPs believe they have much in common, and that either would make a better choice to beat Premier Doug Ford than Crombie.
Their agreement announcement said that the “Ontario Liberals will be best positioned to beat Doug Ford by electing a principled, pragmatic and Liberal leader.”
The statement about a “Liberal leader” was designed to remind prospective voters about an early error in the Crombie campaign, when the candidate said she would open up certain areas of the environmentally protected Greenbelt to developers. Crombie has since recanted that position, and promised to leave the protected areas untouched.
But throughout the lengthy campaign, opponents have attempted to portray the front-runner as Ford lite, noting that some of the same developers who are supporting her mayoralty race have also donated to Ford.
The Naqvi and Erskine-Smith’s statement characterized Crombie (without naming her) as “leadership … vulnerable to the same criticisms as the Ford Conservatives—their political baggage, priorities and donors.”
One other candidate has already left the race. Adil Shamji, a provincial Liberal MPP and former physician, threw his support behind Crombie.
A fourth candidate, Ted Hsu, is the only one who currently sits in the provincial legislature. He said on social media that he was approached about the deal, but turned it down because he believes members should have free votes and the party should be beyond deal-making.
For her party, Crombie said she was hoping to be Liberals’ first choice because she has the fundraising and organization skills to help the party win in 2026. She was turning the fundraising questions into a positive as the party is currently in third place in the legislature, and needs cash to be competitive in the next election.
Crombie has already raised more than double the amount of money donated to the combined campaigns of Naqvi and Erskine-Smith.
Full disclosure: I have publicly supported Crombie as leader. The move to join forces was not unexpected. Most leadership campaigns evolve into an anybody-but-the-frontrunner towards the end of the race. The election that saw Stéphane Dion become federal Liberal Party leader was an ‘anybody-but’ movement. In that leadership it was anybody but Bob Rae or Michael Ignatieff, the two front-runners.
Negative karma drove a lot of voters into the arms of Gerard Kennedy and Dion. Dion started the race with only 16 per cent of the vote, but he ended up winning by making a deal with Gerard Kennedy for support.
Deals are usually made quietly in the background. Last week’s announcement was intended to garner maximum media attention.
The public strategy is risky for Naqvi and Erskine-Smith as too much internal fighting could cost them politically. Some Liberals won’t appreciate the attacks on Crombie’s weaknesses, and others may not like being told how to vote. The public nature of the deal may hurt both candidates’ future if Crombie does win.
But in one sense, it was a risk they had to take. As the sale of new memberships is now over, all the candidates have a pretty good handle on their standing in the pack.
And it is highly likely that Crombie is outpacing all of them by a good margin. Last week’s coalition was a do-or-die move for both men. It may not deliver them the leadership, but doing nothing would be equally costly.
If Crombie has enough support to win a majority of votes on the first counting of the ballots, it is a moot point.
If not, the ranking of candidates does have an impact as this will be a vote by all in a preferential ballot. Once the first vote is counted, the candidate with the fewest supporters drops off, and voters’ choices for second and third are then reallocated for a second count.
This Liberal duo is counting on ranked ballots to take one of them over the top.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.