TORONTO – Ontario’s governing Liberals are hoping to turn the page on a year of scandals, labour disputes and bad publicity as they begin voting today for a new leader and the province’s next premier.
About 1,800 selected delegates and another 400 so-called ex-officios — party executives, current and former members of the legislature, MPs and even defeated candidates — are eligible to vote for the new leader at the leadership convention.
Delegates have up until 11 p.m. Friday to cast their committed first ballots, and the results are expected shortly after noon Saturday. Many predict the Liberals are looking at a three- or four- or five-ballot convention, which means the race could go on until late Saturday, or even early Sunday.
The Liberals will pay tribute Friday night to outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty, who stunned Ontarians and his own party when he announced his resignation Oct. 15, and prorogued the legislature.
In recent years, his minority government has been rocked by scandals, including the costly cancellation of two gas plants, a police probe at the province’s air ambulance service and a nasty fight with public school teachers.
Former Windsor-West MPP Sandra Pupatello heads into the leadership convention with the most committed first-ballot delegates, 27.4 per cent, and with about one-quarter of the ex-officios on her side.
Kathleen Wynne, who represents Toronto-Don Valley West, is a close second in delegate support at 25 per cent, and is seen as Pupatello’s closest rival for the premier’s office.
Gerard Kennedy, who lost the 1996 leadership race to McGuinty, was in third place in delegate support at 14 per cent, followed closely by former government services minister Harinder Takhar at 13.25 per cent.
Also running are former labour minister Charles Sousa, who pulled almost 11 per cent of first-ballot delegates, and former children’s services minister Eric Hoskins, who finished last in delegate support at 5.6 per cent.
There has already been talk of pre-convention attempts at deal making for support on the second ballot, but all six candidates insist they’re in it to win it, at least publicly.
Observers will be watching the convention floor closely Saturday to see which candidate appears to have momentum, and which one is ready to take their supporters to one of the front-runners to help put them over the top.
Second-ballot voting is expected to begin around 1 p.m. Saturday, and only the last place candidate will be forced off each ballot until one of them gets over 50 per cent. However, that doesn’t prevent other candidates from withdrawing from subsequent ballots and moving to support one of their rivals.
Pupatello — who doesn’t have a seat in the legislature — says she would run in a byelection before recalling the legislature. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has offered to vacate his seat so Pupatello can run in his Windsor-Tecumseh riding, if she wins.
Kennedy, who lost his job as an MP in 2011, also doesn’t have a seat, but says he would recall the legislature as soon as possible and run concurrently in a byelection.
The question many Ontarians will be asking Sunday morning is: Will the province be heading for an early general election, or will the new leader try to work with one of the opposition parties to keep the minority government alive.
Political parties frequently use the publicity generated by a leadership race to launch into a general election, and the new Liberal leader could decide on that strategy, said Bryan Evans of Ryerson University in Toronto.
“They’re going to be looking hard at the kind of bump they get coming out of the convention,” he said.
“I’m sure they will (get one), but will it be sufficient to inspire confidence so they can win a general election? Only the (winner) and the people around them can be the judge of that.”
Henry Jacek, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the Liberals know they’re in third place in popular support right now and likely couldn’t even win another minority government, so they’re in no hurry for a general election.
“The party is saying we need somebody who’s going to carry us over the next two years,” he said.
“There are going to be a bunch of people saying we don’t want to turn the government over to somebody else right away.”