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Ontario MPP Michael Coteau on the Liberal implosion: ’The simple fact is that we’ve lost’

Heading into the Ontario election, Michael Coteau was in cabinet; now, he’s just one of seven Liberal MPPs left. He speaks about what went wrong in a wide-ranging Q&A
Michael Coteau in his Toronto office. (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)
Michael Coteau in his Toronto office. (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)

After 15 years in power, Ontario’s election night was doomsday for the Liberal Party. Four years ago, they were elected to a majority at Queen’s Park, and today, they’ve been reduced to a seven-member caucus, meaning the Liberals have lost official party status. That number, however, includes Michael Coteau, who has served as an MPP since 2011 and was a cabinet minister in the Kathleen Wynne government for Children and Youth Services, Tourism, Culture and Sport, and Immigration. Amid talk of his leadership role in the future of the party, Coteau sat down for a candid, wide-ranging discussion about the Liberal campaign, the incoming Progressive Conservative government, the “broken” relationship between the Liberals and labour groups, the value of centrism, the progressive vote’s shift to the NDP, and finding out about Wynne’s speech conceding the election one week before election night through social media.

Q: What was going through your mind on election day?

I wasn’t sure if I was going to win. Throughout the campaign, there are obviously ups and downs, and we were pretty positive because of [the answers we received at] the door. We kept getting responses that made reference to the work that our office has done. But we saw the poll numbers constantly not in our favour, so we just weren’t sure what was going to happen. As the numbers were coming in, they started to fluctuate, and at one point in my opponent had a couple hundred more votes than me. Then it switched again. And then by the end [on election day], within minutes, I was declared the winner. It was like a thousand pounds being released, that built up over the campaign. So I was surprised, but obviously grateful to the community.

Q: By “my opponent,” I assume you’re referring to Denzil Minnan-Wong. What do you think gave you the advantage?

We knew early on in the campaign that the majority of people in the riding did not support Doug Ford. He became my opponent, not Denzil Minnan-Wong. So when I went to the doors, I asked people: even if they didn’t support me, are they going to support Doug Ford? And it was a consistent no. Everywhere we went: “We cannot support Doug Ford.” So I positioned myself as the alternative to a Doug Ford and the only person that could stop a Doug Ford candidate in this riding.

Q: But Doug Ford ended up winning. And the PCs ended up winning the election with a majority. Doug Ford is the premier-designate.


Q:  So how far did that really go?

There’s so many other pieces to it. I’ve been elected in this community since 2003. For 15 years, either as a school board trustee or as an MPP. So there are relationships [I’ve built]. But people have to remember that the conservatives, like other governments, don’t win the majority of votes to win a majority. Look at the numbers—I think they got 37 per cent. So the majority of people in Ontario did not support Doug Ford. It’s something we need to keep in mind, and we know that the additional 60 per cent plus of Ontario voters subscribe to a more progressive agenda.

READ MORE: This is how the Ontario Liberals were decimated on election night

Q: When you say that they didn’t win the majority of voters, the PCs actually captured closer to about 40 per cent of the people who did show up to vote. But they are the majority party. Your party once had the opportunity to introduce proportional representation to the province. In fact, there was a referendum on it, but proportional representation failed, many said, because the Liberal Party misrepresented exactly what proportional representation was, and allocated less money than was promised to educate the public on that. Are there any regrets around that now?

I wasn’t there when the discussion was taking place; that was under the Dalton McGuinty government. I was at the school board at the time, so I can’t really speak to what actually happened during that period, but I do know that when I was going from door to door [in this election], different voting models did come up. But the model that I’ve always run in was first past the post, and that’s what got me elected in my riding.

Q: Do you still support first past the post?

What I did say to people at the door who actually had that conversation with me, is that I think we should revisit the whole conversation around how people are elected. And that says something about the system we have in place. People who are disconnected from the system, and who don’t feel like they’re part of the system don’t come to vote because they’re disappointed in government as a whole. Why aren’t people showing up to vote, and why are the youngest demographic the ones least likely to vote? [For those] under 35 in Ontario or in Canada, that needs to change. So we’ve got to figure out ways to get more buy-in from people to participate in the process.

Former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announces to supporters that she is stepping away from her Liberal seat during her election night party at York Mills Gallery in Toronto on Thursday, June 7, 2018. (Tijana Martin/CP)

Q: For the most part, when people feel like they don’t have a stake in the political process, it ends up favouring more populist parties. That’s something that I think we’ve seen this this time around, that populism has swept Ontario. What do you make of the fact that your political opponents ran a campaign with an incomplete platform, and still won with this wide a majority?

When it comes to Doug Ford, I don’t think he’s what you would define as a populist candidate. I think he is more of a recipient to the coalition of people who were fighting against progressives. There are some big-ticket items out there, and in 15 years of [governing] there’s a lot of decisions that are being made. He had the ability to benefit from that coalition of opposition. The other piece making up that coalition were social conservatives. Then there were people who are part of the business community. The list goes on and on. There are a lot of people that, after 15 years of a Liberal government in Ontario, were mad at this government. [Doug Ford] was able to assemble that coalition with a very simple message, and he inherited a party that was being rebuilt by his predecessor [Patrick Brown].

The other thing that’s important to note is that the Liberal Party ran a campaign that was based on [strategies from] 15 years ago. There was a lot of explanation. There was a comprehensive platform. Remember Chrétien’s Red Book? Maybe 120 pages, if memory serves me correctly. That’s what used to define the type of politics people expected, a very comprehensive platform and plan—”this is the way we’re going to do things.” But the world’s changed. The communication vehicles have switched completely. You cannot take a 120-page document in today’s era and say to the voters, “Here you go, this is what we’re going to do.” The world’s changed, you know?

Q: Yeah. You promise them buck-a-beer instead.

[Laughs] You promise four or five things, and you don’t put out any ideas. You’re playing it very safe. I think we were outflanked as a party in many ways because Doug Ford had the ability to keep his message very simple and more adaptable to today’s age. The expectations have completely switched. There’s so much information that’s coming out today, that it’s hard for a voter to understand really what’s going on.

I would go to a door and a person will say, “Well, you guys have messed the economy up.” And I’d say, well, the economy is actually doing very well in the G7. Our economy is outperforming. In most jurisdictions I would say things like unemployment rates are the lowest in last 20 years. Those pieces were true. But number one: people didn’t believe it. And number two: we didn’t do a good job in articulating that strength within the economy over the last several years. So I think the way in which the voter receives information, and has to filter information, has become so complicated.

You have different groups like Ontario Proud. You have newspapers, you have reporters like yourself, you have politicians, you’ve got third-party interests, you’ve got so many messages coming out. It’s really hard to understand who’s got good information, and who’s got bad information. [Doug Ford] was able to simplify that message so people understood exactly what he stood for.

Our message, and our platform, and our history was very complex. We’ve been doing a lot of things like basic income and tuition reduction. And when you start hearing this over and over and over, it becomes very numbing to the mind.

READ MORE: A former Ontario Liberal staffer on what went wrong—and what comes next

Q: Your positioning as the anti-Ford candidate worked, and six of your colleagues were re-elected. What happened to everybody else?

They were all different messages in different campaigns. Obviously in Ontario, there are regional differences. Why has the Liberal Party been successful in urban Toronto, and not successful in the Windsor area? From London all the way to Windsor and there’s been a vacuum there for a couple of decades. North York, where we’re sitting today, is very different from Scarborough in many ways. There are a lot of similarities, but a lot of differences. I just know locally here in Don Valley East, we had an amazing team of people. We had a good track record. The people in general did not like Doug Ford and they didn’t like the concept of him being the premier.

Q: You bring up southwest Ontario, and there is one Liberal that has a track record of success in the region: Sandra Pupatello. She was the runner-up to Kathleen Wynne in the last Liberal leadership convention, and now people are talking about her as a possible leader for the party. Do you agree?

I’ve only met Sandra Pupatello a couple of times. She’s very charismatic, very bright, a very smart person. I know she’s done well both in government, and outside of it. She’s very capable. But the whole conversation about leadership is very premature. The party has just gone through its worst defeat in the history of Ontario, and we’re a party older than confederation.

It’s a great topic for journalists to talk about, because if you like politics, it’s exciting. But the party has just gone through a complete collapse, and doesn’t even have the ability to gain party status. At this point, we should be thinking about what actually happened, and how we build a foundation that will allow us to move forward.

Putting in the groundwork for the rebuild is going to take some time. I think the leadership question is so premature and I don’t think it’s very helpful in this stage at all.

Q: So it’s not going to be helpful if I ask you whether you’re considering throwing your hat in the ring?

I love politics. I love serving my community. I love being a Liberal, [which I’ve been] since I was a teenager. I’ve always been attracted to the Liberal approach to politics. I will continue to work and to do whatever I can to help. Who knows: maybe one day I would consider doing something like that. But that decision is not going to happen today and it’s not going to happen in two months. The next several months are going to be about healing, and about putting in the foundation.

Q: So what you’re saying is I should come back and ask you in several months, plus one day?

I would be a liar if I said that it hasn’t crossed my mind, but I said to my wife it’s something that I would only start thinking about in the fall.

Q: We’ll talk in the fall, then. What do you make of the fact that progressives, who supported the Liberals in the last election, have shifted their allegiances over to the NDP?

The beautiful thing about being a Canadian or an Ontarian is that when it comes to going to cast your ballot, you have a free decision to make. People are going to switch constantly. I had Conservatives tell me that they’re going to support me at this time. I had people who are NDP say that they’re going to support me because they saw me as the only person that could actually beat Doug Ford in this riding. So there are a lot of considerations that people make, and people are going to change. It just happens based on the circumstances.

I went to one door where someone said, “Michael, what should I do?” And that was a very odd question because, you know, my natural response is “Well, vote for me.” But I understood exactly what they were saying to me. So I think you can never take anything for granted, but I do know this—and this is a message I’ve heard consistently across the province—people who said that they were Liberals, but voted NDP, were strategic this time. I think the majority of people in Ontario are liberal-minded in that sense. They have liberal values.

READ MORE: Centrism is dead. Doug Ford’s victory just proves it.

Q: What are liberal values, though? Something that we don’t discuss often is the value of centrist politics, which are rather amorphous. The NDP stands for very progressive, very pro-union, working-poor type of politics. The PCs very much value fiscal responsibility, and to the extent that they support social conservatism, you know exactly where they stand. A big criticism of the Liberal party has been that people don’t always know what you stand for.

If you look historically at what the Liberal party stands for—multiculturalism, universal healthcare, LGBTQ rights, minority rights, women’s rights—the Liberal party has always been at the forefront of what’s on the minds of Ontarians at that moment in time. Parties can be locked into a philosophy or ideology that locks them into a way of thinking. Or you can have a party that has the ability to be flexible in its thinking process and the ability to capture the mood of the time. I think that Canada has benefited from that, because the Liberal party has had the ability to capture where the people are.

I think that’s what being in the centre means. It doesn’t mean just trying to just capture the biggest amount of votes. It means representing the mood of the nation.

Q: But what if the mood of the nation shifts towards, say, conversion therapy for people who come out as gay?

There are some very basic principles that are connected what it means to being a Liberal. The very essence of what it means to be a Liberal is to ensure that the rights of the individual are protected. There are some fundamental principles you can’t break away from. People have the right to liberty, they have the right to live their life freely.

You know, we see this constantly appear. Even [Wynne] has taken on some pretty tough issues that speak to the fundamental rights of people. So if you’re a Liberal, you can occupy that centre space that you don’t have to move away from the foundational pieces that make you who you are. It’s a philosophy and ideology based on a very simple concept of human rights and dignity towards people.

Q: The reason I asked that question is because Doug Ford has pledged to scrap the sex-education curriculum. There was quite a bit of misinformation around the curriculum at the time the program was released. What do you think will happen if the curriculum is lost?

I have a 12-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old daughter. The eight-year-old is introduced to simple things like body parts. My 12-year-old has talked about reproduction last year, and in the next couple of years we’ll talk about stuff that will make anyone over 40, or the average person, very uncomfortable. But the simple fact is this: we know that STDs are increasing. Young people are being sexually exploited in different ways because they don’t know what’s happening at that moment.

One of my friends phoned me and asked for advice, because his 10-year-old son was on the bus and one of the kids was showing this very graphic stuff on his smartphone to the other kids. All this stuff’s happening. And we know there are a lot of parents out there that are not [giving] their children knowledge they should have to protect themselves.

But in Ontario, if you don’t want your child to learn about the sex-ed curriculum, if it goes against your values, you have the option to opt out. Most people don’t know that. You know, I also believed that it should be reviewed and it should be shared by the principal and community should be involved in the process, to look at ways to improve it and to make it better. To make it more reflective of people’s specific beliefs.

I just can’t imagine a world where young people are not being taught that, because at the end of the day we would have young people being exploited in different ways. I don’t disagree with people being able to opt out. I think that’s a good thing if it goes against their values. But I still think that we need a curriculum that teaches young people so they can protect themselves.

Michael Coteau in his Toronto office. (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)

Q: Do you have confidence that Andrea Horwath and the NDP will be able to effectively stand up in these areas?

The leader of the opposition will be able to speak to many of those issues. But I still don’t believe that the NDP is the direction that Ontario would go in the future. In this entire situation, where there’s a collapse of the Liberal party, where most Ontarians do not like Doug Ford, and even though Andrea was polling way above everyone else in likability, the NDP could not break through. Why do you think that was? Because people don’t connect with the NDP either. They’re too locked-in ideologically and they’re not flexible enough to keep up with the modern economy, the modern world, and the complexity of society. We need to have a flexible government that responds to change, to hyperglobalization, and innovative ideas that are constantly changing. The NDP are too locked into one way of thinking.

Q: What thinking are they locked into?

Put it this way. Their ideology that doesn’t allow them the flexibility to make certain decisions. You know what I’m talking about?

Q: I’m going to press you on this one. What ideology is it you’re talking about when you say that NDP is locked in? Describe it for me.

For example, taxation policy. They would say that we have to increase taxes on business. I don’t know if increasing taxes on businesses is the solution, or if it’s growing the economy. We’ve taken the growing-the-economy route; [it’s been] the better approach for years, and increasing infrastructure, productivity, to help pay for what we’re doing. Their simple solution is to just raise taxes…You know, you have to remember the NDP’s solutions are locked into one way of doing things. Raising taxes is one of the strategies they will always put in place. And every NDP government that I can think of has done it right across the country. And the previous one in Ontario did it.

Q: But when you say “ideology,” I don’t think we’re just talking about tax policy.

I know exactly where you’re getting at and I’ll go there. With labour policy, there was this whole piece around never using back-to-work legislation. You know, back-to-work legislation is something that even organized labour looks at as a last move in order to figure out where to go. So for Andrea Horwath to say that she would never use back-to-work legislation is a bit troublesome. We need to put in place in an environment where we allow the collective agreement process to take place.

I’ve had union leaders saying that you should use the back-to-work legislation in certain circumstances, you know, so this is something that even union leadership knows is part of the legislation and it’s something that can be used but only used if absolutely necessary.

READ MORE: Kathleen Wynne speaks following the Liberals’ crushing election loss

Q: A lot of people were unhappy with the last-minute Liberal pivot towards attacking the NDP. There were tweets that went out from the Liberal party account, theorizing that an NDP majority government would result in endless strikes because they refuse to use back-to-work legislation.

That’s a hypothetical situation. Like I can’t tell you what the NDP would do or wouldn’t do.

Q: Right, but many felt that Liberals were trying to pivot toward the centre-right bloc by scaring the public into thinking there would be neverending strikes.

I think that the relationship between organized labour and the Liberals is broken at this point, and we need to rebuild that relationship. People have the right to organize, and I think more people organizing themselves as a good thing. I believe in organized labour. I believe in the collective bargaining process. I believe in progressive legislation that allows people to protect themselves in the workforce. Our government did not, at the end, have the relationship that was necessary. And we need to figure out how to bring that relationship back. And I think that’s part of the healing process.

You know, it’s not gonna happen in a year or two. It’s going to take many, many years to get to that point. But it’s something that we would have to work towards.

Q: Would you have endorsed that tweet?

The simple fact is that we’ve lost. We lost the election. There are many reasons why we lost, and the relationship between organized labour and the Liberal party broke down. It needs to be rebuilt when you put out any type of communication that has people feeling that they’re not connected to the governing party. And we’re not talking about small interests. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of people that are connected back to organized labour. The best way to maintain those relationships is to follow the process that’s in place and work together to find those solutions. But it’s going to take years to get back to that point.

Q: Speaking of broken relationships: with 15 years of the Liberal party being in power, there have been no end of scandals accumulated up to that point. What can the Liberal party do to wash off the stench of the eHealth scandal, the gas plant scandal, Hydro One, and pay-for-access?

What we’re going to have to do over the next little while is a tough thing to do, but that’s the way it’s been done for years and that’s the way it’s going to be done for, for years to come.

And at the end of the day, I’ve worked on a file I’m really proud of. When I was minister of citizenship and immigration, I introduced the first Immigration Act in Ontario. When I was at Tourism, Culture, and Sport, I got to deliver the Pan Am Games. I introduced legislation to protect our trail systems in Ontario. As the minister of children and youth services, I put in child-protection reform for the first time in 30 years. I brought forward the Anti-Racism Directorate, and put in the first Anti-Racism Act in Ontario’s history. I delivered the Black Youth Action Plan that I think was a very positive thing.

So I’m very proud of my personal track record in government. But it’s complex and there’s always going to be mistakes that are made. So I have no regrets when it comes to my role in government, but there are a few items that I would have done differently.

Q: But even though these scandals weren’t part of your docket, and you were elected after most of them had happened, people have long memories. And you’re part of the party apparatus now. So what might you have done differently?

It’s hard to reflect on something that took place when you weren’t even part of that system. But when you think about the energy system in Ontario, what people don’t realize is that you’re not talking about setting up the furnace and attaching a couple of pipes to it. This is a complex system that is made up of probably thousands of subsystems. It was a system that was $50 billion dollars in deferred maintenance, $25 billion in debt. It was a dirty system. It was transformed into one of the cleanest systems in North America.

But as individuals, when mistakes happen, we need to recognize that it’s taken place. We need to accept the responsibility and we need to put in place the processes that allow for it not to happen again. People think government is like this incredible, miraculous machine or a machine can almost do anything. Ontario is a $150-billion operation that can do anything, because we see it save lives and educate children and protect people. We see all these great things happening. But these are individuals that are running the system. As long as we learn, acknowledge, and replace people when they fail, we’re going to get better at this.

Q: You make a very good point there when you talk about replacing people, if they fail. I’ve seen it floated was that the Liberals should have replaced Kathleen Wynne, and allow somebody else to lead the party into this election. What do you make of that?

You know, we could have ended up with zero seats. I don’t know—it’s such a hypothetical. I just know that—and I said this during a debate—I wish people could see Kathleen Wynne the way people around her see her: a caring, compassionate person that really wants to just make the world around her a better place. Taking on that role as premier is a challenging position. You get a lot of people who will be out there criticizing you and constantly looking for ways to look for your mistakes or flaws and just go after them.

I just know that she’s a smart person, a caring person and she shares the values that I think most Ontarians believe in. When history looks back at her track record, people will look back at her and see her as a true progressive who made a difference in the world around her. She’s brought in reform to policing in Ontario, which people are usually scared to touch. She’s put in innovative programs like the Black Youth Action Plan to focus on a specific demographic demographic where we’re seeing some challenges. When people look at that and 10 years or 20 years from now, I think she’s going to be held in a positive light.

Q: What advice would you give to the official opposition party?

I’ve never been in opposition, so that’s a hard question. But knowing what I know about the Conservative party, my advice would be to ensure that they cultivate an environment where it’s not a single party only asking those questions and holding them accountable. Just because they’re the official opposition doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be the only official voice of the opposition. There’s a Green Party member in the house [Mike Schreiner], and seven Liberal party members. They need to show leadership to cultivate an environment that allows for many voices to challenge the government. The only way that a Conservative government will be replaced by more progressives in the future will be through a coalition, or a collective voice of many people. Not just one.

Q: Would you be open to a coalition with the NDP in the future?

We’ve just put in place an interim leader, and we’re going to pursue establishing a Liberal voice in the legislature. I think we have a lot to offer. That’s our game plan at this point. I don’t know what the future is going to bring, but I think that the NDP has to demonstrate that they can provide some leadership to open up the voices in the legislature—not only to the NDP, but to all of those voices that are out there, to be open to looking for ways for progressives to better collaborate. But at this stage, it’s way too early to ever say if we would actually go into a formal type of relationship with the NDP. And to be quite honest, if the numbers were different, that would probably be a case where there would have to be some collaboration. But the numbers suggest that the NDP do not need the Liberal party.

Q: Do you think the NDP should grant party status to a seven-member caucus?

Obviously I would agree to that, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be giving party status, but just allowing for the Liberal party to maintain itself enough so we can have a voice. When you lose party status, you lose all resources. So there’s no central organization doing research, or handling any type of communication. When you have seven, you become independent members of the legislature. There are things that they can do to ensure that the Ontario Liberal party has a voice in the building. And I think if you asked Ontarians, “should the Ontario Liberal party have a voice in the legislature?” the majority would agree.

READ MORE: Why Ford would benefit from granting the Liberals party status

Q: But the Progressive Conservatives would have to agree with that. When the NDP was down to a seven-member legislature, Dalton McGuinty at the time said “The rules are the rules.” But there was material support to the NDP, and they were given a budget so they could maintain their basic operations.

Correct. That’s the way it’s been explained to me. Obviously party status would be incredible, but I think the resources are the first thing that we need as Ontario Liberals in order to continue to bring forward a voice that represents 20 per cent of the people of Ontario who voted Liberal. We would make the same arguments for the Greens. We always hear the 250,000 people in Ontario that voted Green in the last previous election. They should have some type of voice. That’s a substantial amount of people. And I’m actually quite happy that the Green Party has a representative, because I don’t believe in a two-party system, which basically is what we have in the legislature. It’s no different from the American system.

Q: Did you know that Premier Wynne was planning on conceding her premiership before election day?

I was driving to the event, which was actually in my riding, at one of the local schools in Don Valley East, where she was making the announcement. There was a call earlier that day at 10 or 10:30 that I missed because I was out doing campaign work. [Wynne] was making the announcement around lunchtime, if memory serves me correct. So there was a two-hour gap, since I didn’t get on the morning call, where she actually said that she was going to take this approach. My campaign manager called me and said the Premier is resigning and I’m like, “What are you talking about? How do you know that?” She said that [Toronto Star reporter Robert] Benzie tweeted it and he’s pretty reliable when it comes to putting out breaking news like that.

So I got there 15 minutes before Wynne arrived, and I was in shock and disbelief, because I didn’t know the context behind it. And when she got there I gave her a hug. She went up, and she said that she was not going to be the premier after this election.

Q: Many said that the Premier’s strategy was to give the Liberal caucus a chance at surviving a complete washout from Queen’s Park. But only seven of you managed to get re-elected. Do you think her strategy was a sound one?

I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer to that. But I do know that it’s so hard to analyze, it was so unorthodox. You don’t normally see that in an election. But I completely understand what she was attempting to do. She was trying to disconnect the voters from [herself] and push it back to the local candidate.

The undecided factors in an election are often large, but it was larger than usual after she made that announcement. For the next few days it actually amplified that confusion. People were not sure. They would say to me, “I was going to vote for you. But now that the Liberals are not going to win, should I be voting for the NDP?” And as I mentioned, one woman said to me, “Who should I vote for now, Michael?” So it kind of added some confusion. But at the same time, my outcome was positive. So I’m not sure if it had a positive or negative effect.

Q: But given that it didn’t make a difference as far as stopping at a PC majority, was it a worthwhile effort?

I think that that question and a few other big questions are going to be on the minds of people for a long time. I can’t analyze that. If you’re asking what my gut feeling was, my gut feeling would be that it was probably better to stay the course. But I understand exactly what the Premier was attempting to do. And I think that it reveals the type of person that I know Kathleen Wynne [to be]. I believe she has always had the best intentions of her colleagues, and the people around us, and the people of Ontario before herself. I believe that. That was one demonstration of her saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about your local community.”