Last weekend, a group of veteran provincial Liberals led by Deb Matthews, Greg Sorbara, and Liz Sandals wrote an open letter to Mike Schreiner (pictured), in which they urge the current Ontario Green Party leader to consider crossing the floor and vying for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party. Photo credit: The Canadian Press/Tijana Martin
After experiencing a crushing defeat in last June’s provincial election, the Ontario Liberal Party is in the process of selecting a new leader. For a party that governed the province for 15 consecutive years not even half a decade ago, one would expect that dyed in the wool Liberals would be banging down the door to help rebuild the party’s foundation in anticipation of taking down Doug Ford’s government in the next election.
Yet, a number of prominent Liberals in the province are urging Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Ontario Green Party, to run for their party’s leadership. As an outsider looking in, it’s increasingly difficult to reconcile the fact that political parties across the spectrum seem to be a leader away from complete and utter demise. One need only look at the turmoil of the federal Conservative Party over the course of the last several years to recognize how a political brand seems to boil down to the leader, rather than the broader efforts of the grassroots members and parliamentarians.
On the one hand, this isn’t the first time a provincial or federal party has recruited a candidate from another party. This was the case in 2021, when sitting Green Party MP Jenica Atwin crossed the floor. In return for exchanging green for red, Atwin got the weight of the Liberal brand behind her heading into an election in a riding she had previously won by less than 2,000 votes. As for the Liberals, they were able to stake claim to a valuable target seat, with a candidate who had experience and name recognition within the community. This gamble paid off for both parties, as Atwin was re-elected.
However, as this example illustrates, cross-party recruitment usually comes in the form of poaching a high-profile, elected member to cross the floor. On paper, it is easy to see the advantage of putting partisanship aside and recruiting outside of the party’s rank and file. The efforts of the team who successfully pulls off such a stunt can even be rewarded in the form of media headlines that spell trouble for the opposing party, while also signaling cross-partisan voter appeal.
Absorbing a caucus member, and perhaps some of the baggage that comes with crossing the floor, is one thing, but handing over the keys to an established party and political brand is a completely different matter.
To win a leadership vote, successful candidates must win not only the existing membership, but also add new supporters to the rank and file. This may sound simple in theory, but outsiders who are not familiar with the needs of current party members are doomed if they can’t produce an immediate win to solidify their position within caucus.
For prominent Liberals to use their platform to suggest no one from within their own ranks is qualified for the job is not only unjust, but also serves as a slap in the face to grassroots members, donors and party loyalists. At a minimum, it is out-of-touch to suggest bringing on a leader without any prior commitment to the team.
The Ontario Liberals are clearly doing some soul searching, which could be forgiven if it didn’t come off as such a shameless publicity stunt. This should serve as a cautionary tale for all political parties, including the federal Liberal Party as it contemplates what success looks like when Justin Trudeau inevitably passes the torch.
Josie Sabatino is a Senior Consultant at Summa Strategies, focused on providing strategic insight and helping clients meet their objectives in an ever changing and complex political and regulatory environment. Prior to joining Summa, Josie spent nearly a decade in political communications and most recently served as the Director of Communications to the Hon. Erin O’Toole, former Leader of the Official Opposition.