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 Ontario general election, 2003. The party is ideologically aligned with the Liberal Party of Canada. 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, and helped the Tories come to power with a platform that combined modernism with sectarian bigotry. 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 1943, 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 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 an election held once the accored 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 quickjly evaporated, however. On the campaign trail, the Liberals were met by voters who were angry at going to the polls just three years into the government's mandate. 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 the New Democratic Party under Bob Rae, 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 the 1999 election, the governing Conservatives started the campaign behind in the polls, but an advertising strategy focusing on attacking new Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty, as well as a weak campaign by the Liberals, enabled the Tories to return to power with a majority in the Legislature.
Return to power
In the 2003 Ontario 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.
Immediately after the election, former Provincial Auditor Erik Peters released a report showing the provincial deficit at $5.6 billion, contradicting the previous Conservative government's claim to have a balanced budget. The McGuinty government moved quickly implement several of its campaign promises:
- to roll-back corporate taxes to 2001 levels,
- a legislated roll-back of auto insurance rates,
- protect the province's medicare system, and
- create a greenbelt around the Greater Toronto Area.
A number of reforms were instituted, including a ban on partisan government advertising, fixed election dates, expanded powers for the provincial auditor and sunshine laws at the province's electricity companies.
At the same time, McGuinty broke a key campaign promise. During the campaign, McGuinty had signed a commitment to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation not to increase taxes and ran television ads proclaiming this commitment. The new government's first budget, however, introduced a new "Ontario Health Premium" to be levied through the tax system. This new tax applies to people earning over $20,000 per year. For 2004, it will cost up to $450 a person. For 2005 and subsequent years, it will cost up to $900 a person. The premium is subject to review after five years.
This reversal on a key campaign promise led to a decline in the party's popularity in mid-2004. This, in turn, contributed to a decline in the federal Liberal vote in Ontario during the 2004 election. During this period, the province's opposition parties and tabloid papers began a campaign of labelling McGuinty and the Ontario Liberal Party as "Fiberals".
The Liberals have maintained a lead over the opposition Progressive Conservatives in recent public opinion polls.
|Year of election ||Candidates elected ||# of seats available ||# of votes ||% of popular vote |
|1985 ||48 ||125 ||1,377,965 ||37.9% |
|1987 ||95 ||130 ||1,788,214 ||47.3% |
|1990 ||36 ||130 ||1,302,134 ||32.4% |
|1995 ||30 ||129 ||1,291,326 ||31.1% |
|1999 ||35 ||103 ||1,751,472 ||39.9% |
|2003 ||72 ||103 ||2,090,001 ||46.5% |
Leaders of the Ontario Liberal Party
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.
- Ontario Liberal Party (http://www.ontarioliberal.on.ca/)