Ontario Liberal Party
The Ontario Liberal Party is a centrist provincial political party in the province of Ontario, Canada. It has formed the Government of Ontario since the provincial election of 2003. The party is ideologically aligned with the Liberal Party of Canada but the two parties are organizationally independent and have separate, though overlapping, memberships. The party is currently led by Dalton McGuinty who has been its leader since 1996.
The Liberal Party of Ontario is descended from the Reform Party of Robert Baldwin and William Lyon Mackenzie, who argued for responsible government in the 1830s and 1840s against the conservative patrician rule of the Family Compact.
The modern Liberals were founded by George Brown, who sought to rebuild the Reform Party after its collapse in 1854. In 1857, Brown brought together the Reformers and the radical "Clear Grits" of southwestern Ontario to create a new party in Upper Canada with a platform of democratic reform and annexation of the northwest. The party adopted a position in favour of uniting Upper and Lower Canada into the United Province of Canada, a concept that eventually led to Canadian confederation.
After 1867, Edward Blake became leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. The party sat in opposition to the Conservative government led by John Sandfield Macdonald. Blake's Liberals defeated the Tories in 1871, but Blake left Queen's Park for Ottawa the next year, leaving the provincial Liberals in the hands of Oliver Mowat. Mowat served as Premier of Ontario until 1896.
While the Tories became a narrow, sectarian Protestant party with a base in the Orange Order, the Liberals under Mowat attempted to bring together Catholics and Protestants, rural and urban interests under moderate, pragmatic leadership.
Decline and opposition
The Liberals were defeated in 1905 after over thirty years in power. The party had grown tired and arrogant in government and became increasingly cautious. As well, a growing anti-Catholic sectarian sentiment hurt the Liberals. The Liberals continued to decline after losing power, and, for a time, were eclipsed by the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) when the Liberals were unable to attract the growing farmers' protest movement to its ranks.
Debates over the party's policy on liquor divided the membership, forced the resignation of at least one leader, and drove away many reform minded Liberals who supported the federal party under William Lyon Mackenzie King but found the provincial party too narrow and conservative to support. The party was so disorganized that it was led for seven years (and through two provincial elections) by an interim leader, W.E.N. Sinclair, as there was not enough money or a sufficient level of organization, and too many divisions within the party to hold a leadership convention. By 1930, the Liberals were reduced to a small, rural, largely Protestant and prohibitionist rump with a base in south western Ontario.
After a series of ineffective leaders, the Liberals turned to Mitchell Hepburn, a farmer, federal Member of Parliament and former member of the UFO. Hepburn was able to build an electoral coalition with Liberal-Progressives and attract reformers and urban voters to the party. The Liberal-Progressives had previously supported the UFO and the Progressive Party of Canada. A "wet", Hepburn was able to end the divisions in the party around the issue of temperance which had reduced it to a narrow sect. The revitalised party was able to win votes from rural farmers, particularly in southwestern Ontario, urban Ontario, Catholics and francophones. It also had the advantage of not being in power at the onset of the Great Depression. With the economy in crisis, Ontarians looked for a new government, and Hepburn's populism was able to excite the province.
In government, Hepburn's Liberals warred with organised labour led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who were trying to unionize the auto sector. Later, he battled with the federal Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, which, Hepburn argued, was insufficiently supportive of the war effort. The battle between Hepburn and King split the Ontario Liberal Party and led to Hepburn's ouster as leader. It also contributed to the party's defeat in the 1943 election, which was followed by the party's long stint in opposition. The Liberals declined to a right wing, rural rump. The "Progressive Conservatives" under George Drew established a dynasty which was to rule Ontario for the next 42 years.
Post-War Boom and opposition
Ontario politics in recent times have been dominated by the Progressive Conservatives, also known as the Tories. The Liberals had formed the Government for only five years out of sixty years from 1943 to 2003. For forty-two years, from 1943 to 1985, the province was governed by the Tories. During this period, the Liberal Party was a rural, conservative rump with a southwestern Ontario base, and were often further to the right of the moderate Red Tory Conservative administrations.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Liberals were almost shut out of Metropolitan Toronto and other urban areas and, in 1975, fell to third place behind the dynamic Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) under Stephen Lewis. With the NDP in ascendency in the late sixties and 1970s, it appeared that the Liberals could disappear altogether.
The Liberals remained more popular than the Tories among Catholic and francophone voters, due to its support for extending Separate school funding to include Grades 11-13. The Tories opposed this extension until 1985, when they suddenly reversed their position. This reversal angered traditional Conservative voters, and may have contributed to their defeat in the 1985 election.
The Peterson Years
The Ontario Liberal Party first broke the Tories' hold on the province in 1985 under the leadership of David Peterson. Peterson modernised the party and made it appealing to urban voters and immigrants who had previously supported the cautious, moderate government of Tory Premiers John Robarts and William Davis.
Peterson was able to form a minority government from 1985 until 1987 due to an accord signed with the NDP. Under this accord, the NDP exchanged its support in the Legislature for the implementation of several NDP policies. As the result of the 1987 election held once the accord expired, Peterson was returned with a majority government, which held power from 1987 to 1990.
Peterson's government ruled in a time of economic plenty where occasional instances of fiscal imprudence were not much remarked on. Peterson was a close ally of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on the Meech Lake Accord but opposed Mulroney on the issue of free trade.
The majority Liberal government of 1987 to 1990 was less innovative than the previous minority government. The Liberals' increasing conservatism caused many centre-left voters to look at the NDP and its leader Bob Rae, and consider the social democratic party as an alternative to the Liberals. The NDP's co-operation with the Liberals between 1985 to 1987 helped the party appear more moderate and acceptable to voters.
The Liberals went into the 1990 election with apparently strong support in the public opinion polls. this support quickly evaporated, however. On the campaign trail, the media reported that the Liberals were met by voters who were angry at going to the polls just three years into the government's mandate. Another negative factor was Peteron's association with Mulroney and the failed 'Meech Lake accord' attempt at constitutional reform, about which the public felt strongly. The campaign was also poorly run: a mid-campaign proposal to cut the provincial sales tax was a particularly bad blunder. The party had also underestimated the impact of the Patti Starr fundraising scandal, as well as allegations surrounding the Liberal government's links with land developers.
Peterson's government lost to Bob Rae's NDP, who promised a return to the activist form of government Peterson had abandoned.
Common Sense Revolution
By the 1995 election, the NDP government had become very unpopular due to perceived mismanagement, a few scandals, and because of the severe downturn in the economy. The Liberal Party was expected to replace the unpopular NDP, but it ran a poor campaign under leader Lyn McLeod, and was beaten by the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris. Harris swept to power on a right-wing "Common Sense Revolution" platform.
In 1996, the Ontario Liberals selected Dalton McGuinty as their leader in a free-wheeling convention. Starting in fourth place, McGuinty's fiscally prudent record and moderate demeanor made him the second choice of a convention polarized around the candidacy of former Toronto Food Bank head Gerard Kennedy.
In the 1999 election, the governing Conservatives were reelected on the basis of strong economic growth and a negative campaign tightly focused on portraying McGuinty as "not up to the job." A poor performance in the leader's debate and a weak overall campaign hamstrung the new leader, but he was able to rally his party in the final weeks of the campaign. The Ontario Liberals garnered 40% of the vote, at the time their second-highest total in 50 years.
McGuinty's second term as opposition leader was more successful than his first. With the Liberals consolidated as the primary opposition to Harris's Progressive Conservatives, McGuinty was able to present his party as the "government in waiting". He hired a more skilled group of advisors and drafted former cabinet minister Greg Sorbara as party president. McGuinty also rebuilt the party's fundraising operation, launching the Ontario Liberal Fund. He personally rebuilt the party's platform to one that emphasized lowering class sizes, hiring more nurses, increasing environmental protections and "holding the line" on taxes in the buildup to the 2003 election. McGuinty also made a serious effort to improve his debating skills, and received coaching from Democratic Party trainers in the United States.
Return to power
In the 2003 election, however, the Tories ran the poor campaign, and their new leader, Ernie Eves was seen to be weak and untrustworthy. The Tories' attempt to repeat the 1999 attacks on McGuinty were unsuccessful. A strong performance by McGuinty on the campaign trail and in the debates led to a 72 seat majority government.
The new government called the Legislature back in session in late 2003, and passed a series of bills relating to its election promises. The government brought in auto insurance reforms (including a price cap), fixed election dates, rolled-back a series of corporate and personal tax cuts which had been scheduled for 2004, passed legislation which enshrined publicly-funded medicare into provincial law, hired more meat and water inspectors, opened up the provincially-owned electricity companies to Freedom of Information laws and enacted a ban on partisan government advertising.
The McGuinty government also benefited from a scandal involving the previous government's management of Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One, which broke in the winter of 2003-04. It was revealed that a number of key figures associated with Mike Harris's "Common Sense Revolution" had received lucrative, untendered multi-million dollar consulting contracts from these institutions. Among the figures named in the scandal were Tom Long, former Harris campaign chairman, Leslie Noble, former Harris campaign manager and Paul Rhodes, former Harris communications director.
On May 18, 2004, Provincial Finance Minister Greg Sorbara released the McGuinty government's first budget. The centrepiece was a controversial new Health Premium of $300 to $900, staggered according to income. This violated a key Liberal campaign pledge not to raise taxes, and gave the government an early reputation for breaking promises. The Liberals defended the premium by pointing to the previous government's hidden deficit, and McGuinty claimed he needed to break his campaign pledge on taxation to fulfill his promises on other fronts. Deserved or not, however, the government's early reputation for breaking promises has created a lasting public relations difficulty.
The Ontario Health Premium also became a major issue in the early days of the 2004 federal election, called a week after the Ontario budget. Most believe that the controversy seriously hampered Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin's bid for re-election.
Also controversial were the elimination of coverage for health services not covered by the Canada Health Act including eye examinations and physical therapy. Other elements included a four-year plan to tackle the deficit left behind by the Conservatives, free immunization for children, investments in education and investments to lower waiting times for cancer care, cardiac care, joint replacement and MRI and CT scans.
Soon after the federal election, McGuinty hosted a federal-provincial summit on health-care funding which resulted in a new agreement for a national health accord. This accord allowed the premiers and territorial leaders to draw more money from Ottawa for health services, and requires the federal government to take provincial concerns such as hospital waiting-lists into account. McGuinty's performance at the summit was generally applauded the Canadian media.
The McGuinty government brought forward a number of progressive regulatory initiatives in the fall of 2004. These included legislation allowing bring-your-own-wine in restaurants, banning junk food in public schools to promote healthier choices, outlawing smoking in public places and requiring students to stay in school until age 18. Following a series of high-profile maulings, the government also moved to ban pit bulls.
During early 2005, McGuinty called the Legislature back for a rare winter session to debate and pass several high-profile bills. The government legislated a Greenbelt around Toronto. The size of Prince Edward Island, the Greenbelt protects a broad swath of land from development and preserves forests and farmland. In response to court decisions, the Liberals updated the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples.
McGuinty also launched a campaign to narrow the $23 billion gap between what Ontario contributes to the federal government and what is returned to Ontario in services. This came as a sharp turn after more than a year of cooperating with the federal government, but McGuinty pointed to the special deals worked out by the federal government with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as compromising the nature of equalization. In particular, McGuinty noted that immigrants in Ontario receive $800 in support from the federal government, while those in Quebec receive $3800. Stephen Harper's Conservative's ascention to power is poised to give the premier a boost in his bid to narrow the fiscal gap, alongside with Mr. Charest, the premier of Quebec. Paul Martin's reluctance to address the fiscal gap issue contrasts with Harper's strong decentralization tendencies, and are promising a major change in the equalization formula.
In the 2003 campaign, the Liberals denounced public-private partnerships (also known as "3P" deals) for infrastructure projects such as the building of hospitals. Following the campaign, however, the McGuinty government allowed "3P" hospital construction deals arranged by the previous government to continue. In their budget of 2005, the government proposed allowing private companies to fund and construct roads, bridges, transit systems and schools.
Recent polling has shown the Liberals maintaining a lead over the opposition Progressive Conservatives. The Liberals have led every provincial poll since John Tory became PC leader in September 2004, although one poll taken in early 2005 showed Tory with a narrow lead over McGuinty for best Premier. The most recent Leger and Leger poll (issued March 17, 2005) has the Liberals at 44%, the PCs at 33% and the NDP at 19%, a significant lead. Also, 50% of Ontarians surveyed by Ipsos Reid in early 2005 said the government was on the right track.
Recent election results - Legislative Assembly of Ontario
|Year of election||Candidates elected||# of seats available||# of votes||% of popular vote|
Leaders of the Ontario Liberal Party
- George Brown1857-1867
- Archibald McKellar 1867-1868
- Edward Blake 1868-1872
- Sir Oliver Mowat 1872-1896
- Arthur S. Hardy 1896-1899
- Sir George William Ross 1899-1907
- George P. Graham 1907
- A.G. MacKay 1907-1911
- Newton Wesley Rowell 1911-1917
- William Proudfoot 1918-1919
- Hartley Dewart 1919-1921
- Wellington Hay 1922-1923
- W.E.N. Sinclair 1923-1930 1
- Mitchell Hepburn 1930-1942 2
- Gordon Daniel Conant1942-1943 2 (interim)
- Harry Nixon 1943-1944
- Mitchell Hepburn 1944-1945 (second time)
- Farquhar Oliver 1945-1950
- Walter Thomson 1950-1954
- Farquhar Oliver 1954-1957 (second time)
- John Wintermeyer 1957-1964
- Andrew Thompson 1964-1967
- Robert Nixon 1967-1976
- Stuart Smith 1976-1982
- David Peterson 1982-1990
- Robert Nixon 1990-1991 (interim) 3
- Murray Elston 1991 (interim) 4
- Jim Bradley 1991-1992 (interim)
- Lyn McLeod 1992-1996
- Dalton McGuinty 1996-present
1 Even though Sinclair led the party through two elections he was never formally elected as leader by the Ontario Liberal Association which, due to its state of disorganization, did not organize a leadership convention until 1930.
2 Hepburn resigned as Premier in October 1942 after designating Gordon Daniel Conant as his successor, and Conant was sworn in as Premier. The Ontario Liberal Association (particularly supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie King) demanded a leadership convention and one was finally held in May 1943 electing Harry Nixon. Technically, Hepburn did not resign as Liberal leader until the convention.
3 Nixon resigned as interim leader and MPP in order to accept a federal appointment.
4 Elston resigned as interim leader when he entered the Liberal leadership race as a candidate.
See Ontario Liberal leadership conventions for further details.
- List of Ontario general elections
- List of Ontario Premiers
- List of Ontario political parties
- Leader of the Opposition (Ontario)
- Liberal Party candidates, 2003 Ontario provincial election