Decades-old system makes it hard to predict who Ontario’s next premier will be

Conventions are not about engaging the public, experts note

Ontario Liberal Party leadership candidate supporters hang banners at the site of the convention in Toronto. (Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press)

TORONTO – The antiquated system Ontario Liberals have chosen to pick a new leader at their party’s leadership convention this weekend may add some drama to an otherwise lacklustre race, political observers predict.

While most parties allow each member to cast a leadership ballot, the new Liberal leader, who automatically will be Ontario’s new premier, will be chosen by about 2,200 selected delegates, so-called ex-officios, former and current MPs and MPPs.

The Liberals say it was because of the short time frame they had after Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his surprise resignation Oct. 15, saying he wanted a new leader in place by the end of January.

“The thing about a delegated convention which makes it interesting…is it can take on a dynamic that right now nobody can predict,” said Bryan Evans, associate professor of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The brief leadership campaign, which reaches the finish line on Saturday, lacked excitement and failed to engage the public, but political experts say leadership conventions are not about the public.

It’s only natural that the six candidates vying for McGuinty’s job devoted their time to signing up new Liberals and then wooing potential delegates to the convention, instead of engaging the general public, said Professor Henry Jacek of McMaster University in Hamilton.

“I don’t think the party is very much worried at this point about the public,” said Jacek.

“They just want to make sure they get the right person for the job, and from their point of view this is an internal decision.”

Sandra Pupatello has the most committed first-ballot support, followed closely by Kathleen Wynne, with Gerard Kennedy third and Harinder Takhar a surprisingly strong fourth. Charles Sousa trails behind followed by Eric Hoskins.

But those commitments are for the first ballot only, and after that is when the horse trading begins as potential leaders try to woo the delegates from other candidates to their camp.

Pupatello and Wynne have the best shots at emerging as the victor this weekend, said Jacek.

“I think the only other person who probably has a really good shot at it is somebody who’s classified as the compromise candidate, and I think that’s Charles Sousa,” he said.

“I don’t think the others can make it to the end.”

In addition to the support of 27 per cent of the more than 1,800 delegates selected by Liberal riding associations and campus clubs, Pupatello also boasts she has 100 of the 400 ex-officios in her camp.

But that still would not be enough to put her over the top on the first ballot, which means we can expect to see some dramatic deal making on the convention floor, said Evans.

“An awful lot of people will make their move (after the first ballot) because they’re going to want to be in the best position possible to be effective on the floor,” he said.

“There will be an element of old fashioned suspense around what will be the manoeuvring on the floor, who will go to whom, and in this convention I think that will be vitally important.”

To become party leader, a candidate needs to get more than 50 per cent of the vote.

“Assuming nobody has over 30 per cent on the first ballot — and I don’t think that’s going to happen — then I think the rest will say they’ll hang in there for at least one more ballot,” said Jacek.

Many predict the Liberals are looking at a three- or four- or five-ballot convention.

One of the key things delegates will be watching for Saturday is momentum — who’s showing growth between the first and second ballots and who fell short, said Jacek.

“People have expectations of how much Pupatello should get and how far ahead of Wynne she should be, and if people don’t see that on the first ballot that could be a real problem for her,” he said.

If Pupatello or Wynne win the race, the Liberals will be making history by electing Ontario’s first woman premier, and in the case of Wynne, the province’s first openly-gay premier.

“I think the issues of identity are secondary to are we electing somebody who can do the job and move Ontario forward in a difficult time,” said Evans.

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