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Kathryn McGarry on leading the Grit rebuild with "a political lens"
Plus: PS Naqvi no more, Integrity Commissioner report rundown, a new NDPer in town, Ke out of caucus, Biden and the budgets, mayoral watch
There's a new NDPer in town while the Tories are down one member after allegations of foreign election interference. But first — the Liberals have a new president who's promising to "lay a solid foundation" as the party prepares to rebuild ahead of the upcoming provincial election.
Kathryn McGarry is no stranger to provincial politics.
It's an asset, she says, at a time when the party needs "a political lens" to establish messaging and take it "to a new level to be ready for the next election." "I accepted the challenge," the former Wynne cabmin and Cambridge chief magistrate said in a phone interview.
McGarry won the party's presidency after battling it out with two incumbent party executives — Fadi El Masry and Natalie Hart — at the Liberal AGM in Hamilton. She's bringing her political experience to the new role, turning her focus to kicking off the nascent leadership contest and rebuilding the party's local riding associations in prep for the next election.
We caught up with the new Liberal president to discuss her biggest priorities and what a Grit rebuild will look like. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Why did you put your name forward for party president?
Due to the experience I've had in the party from all angles, including riding president and a regional vice president. I've been a candidate and ran twice in the difficult riding of Cambridge. On the third try, I actually won. I was an MPP and a cabinet minister. And after the 2018 election, I stepped forward and became the Mayor of Cambridge. When I stepped out of that, in mid November, I had many people asking me to step forward and assist the party in rebuilding now that I had some time to use my experience. We're at a time when we need a political lens on our party to help establish the messages and take the party to a new level to be ready for the next election. So I accepted the challenge. I did win and I'm quite honoured to be the new president of the Ontario Liberal Party.
You spoke about your political life. What skills can you use from those experiences in this new job?
I've been known as a collaborative consensus builder. My experience at the cabinet table and as an MPP has really helped me hone those interpersonal skills that helped take us to the next level. When I looked at the party from the outside, while I was a non-political and non-partisan mayor, I recognized that we were missing that political lens. My political acumen will assist in bridging and strengthening the relationship between the caucus members and our party, and our party, the riding associations and the membership. With that political lens, I can help hone some of the messages and communication that are going out from our party, to ensure that they're being heard provincewide.
My ability to understand what our caucus members are going through allows me to assist our interim leader in more support for himself and the caucus and a larger tie between our caucus and the party.
You spoke about the experience being an asset. How do you respond to those who may criticize your experience as a liability to the rebuild of the party?
I have two points on that on that. One is that the party president is there to defend the party as a long-standing democratic institution in the province, our brand and how we structure our communications and our party through our riding associations. Being a candidate or an MPP is on the other side of the coin. All those in our party who have been Liberals for a long time have been Liberals under the leadership of Steven Del Duca, Kathleen Wynne, Dalton McGuinty, right back to the Peterson era. It's my experience in that party that assists me in understanding the party structure and knowing how to rebuild it. There's a difference between being tied or tagged into an unpopular government.
But I would offer this: there's quite an outcry across Ontario on the Ford government's proposal to carve up the Greenbelt and build on areas that have been protected in the past. And although Dalton McGuinty's government put that two million acre Greenbelt together to better protect our environment — and that particular legislation is certainly valued by people across the province — it was Kathleen Wynne's government that strengthened it.
So I reject the idea that being part of that government is anything negative towards my role as a party president.
You spoke about rebuilding the party ahead of the next provincial election. What does that rebuild look like?
From all aspects, we really need a rebuild. We've had two tough elections. However, in the last election, we saw that the Liberal vote count went up and the NDP and Conservative vote went down. People are looking for an alternative to the current government and are willing to hold the space for coming back to the Liberal Party in a rejuvenating way. We saw the beginning of this during this AGM. When I was calling constituents around our province, I could really sense a sense of excitement, of looking forward to a rejuvenated party. People looking to get back and involved to ensure that they could build up their funds and riding associations, to better support a candidate and the nomination process in the future. You could see that in the number of delegates that came to Hamilton. You could actually catch the electrifying excitement in the room when we passed new constitutional amendments on how we select our leader and when the Rural and Northern Ontario Commission was passed. So I feel that the delegates are the start of the rejuvenation of our party. And renewal comes at all levels.
I'll be ensuring that the members and the riding association presidents will have far more input into our party and on how they want to be supported, as they do that important work for the next election. Lastly, the good work that our caucus is doing in the Legislature needs to be better communicated — not just in those MPPs ridings but across the province.
From a perspective of an outsider for the past four years, what made the last two election cycles tough?
I would say that the first election was an outgoing government that had been in power for fifteen years. There was voter fatigue of the party in power. And that's a common issue on any level of government. So I think it wasn't necessarily a surprise to all of us. I think where my observations have led me to recognize what needs to be done is that many of the changes that we needed to make as a party were not really implemented the way they needed to be. That would be training our next generation of campaign managers. It would mean the reliance that the party had in the past on Queen's Park staff could no longer be replicated because we didn't have those numbers of staff anymore.
Finally, I think that the pandemic certainly didn't help after our leadership campaign to get our new leader known and around the province. That renewal and the training and support for our candidates and for our volunteers was not there and as robust. But again, I do find out, although we didn't see the seat count that we were hoping for, we certainly saw an increase in the popular vote with our party. And that has really renewed our sense of getting down to business.
Let's talk a bit more about the leadership race. Where do things stand right now and how is the contest shaping to look like?
There was a real sense when we unanimously passed one-member, one-vote. For many, many Liberals across Ontario, that signaled that the party really is ready for change. As it's a new process for us, we have asked our staff and those that will be assisting in running the leadership election to put together and implement all of the changes that we voted on and bring a report forward to executive council as soon as possible. We can then look at all the details and make decisions to ensure that we can get this race ahead at a time that makes sense for all. I will say that a leadership race in this sense is going to be transparent. I will look to be neutral. The party is committed to a real fair but exciting race.
Do you have a tentative timeline you're looking at?
As soon as we have the report and our executive council is able to meet, we will have a better idea of what the timelines look like and all of the details for any of the candidates that are stepping up to race at that point. It's not going to be too long from now that we start to deal with that.
There's been talk from candidates about a shortened leadership race — with a leader named as early as December. Is that an idea you'll be exploring?
Yes, we've heard from potential candidates that that's what they would like. I'm aware that our executive council and party staff have heard that loud and clear and those are some of the considerations that they'll be bringing forward in a report about how soon and when and how the voting is going to happen. There's a number of different decisions that we have to make relatively quickly. And we'll have a better idea once we're able to make those considerations. But the potential candidates have certainly been requesting an earlier rather than later race.
And do you think that would benefit the party?
I think it gives us time to do some of the fundraising that's essential to run any campaign and for the leader to become more known. In the last race, we selected a leader about six days before the province shut down. It's not enough time for that leader to get out and get themselves known to the voting public. I think that there's certainly a case to be made this time that we will have time for our new leader — whoever they may be — to get their voice and their message out.
What's the biggest challenge that you're going to be facing as president?
I think it's implementing all of the changes that our membership would like us to change, fundraising, and ensuring that we have a good, solid foundation in all our riding associations to support our candidates who will be stepping forward. However, for myself, it's also a very welcomed challenge.
What's one thing you'd like our avid readers to know about you?
As a longtime nurse and a politician for the past few years, people are sometimes unaware that I can certainly advocate quite strongly and make tough decisions that are sometimes surprising to people that think that because of my style, I can't stand up to tough situations.
In other news: Liberals passed a reform to the leadership election system — becoming the last provincial party to move away from delegated conventions and adopt a one member, one vote policy. Under the new rules, each riding association will receive one hundred points to be proportionally allocated to each leadership candidate based on support. Each member will directly cast a ranked ballot in the upcoming contest.
The move was supported by a number of potential candidates and MPPs. Mitzie Hunter — who spearheaded a failed effort to reform the party's electoral system prior to the last leadership election — called it an "epic moment."
The party also adopted other constitutional changes — including measures to reduce event fees for lower-income members and the creation of the Ontario Liberal Rural and Northern Commission.
Speaking of the Grit leadership: Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi — who is mulling over a bid for the party's top job — has stepped down as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Emergency Preparedness.
"As Yasir explores the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party he has stepped down from the role as Parliamentary Secretary," a spokesperson told us in an email. The former attorney general will stay on as MP for Ottawa Centre. Catch up and read more on why Naqvi is considering a provincial comeback.
What he's saying: Commissioner J. David Wake — who's placed the investigation in "abeyance" — says he noted some issues with Stiles' request "in meeting the high bar of reasonable and probable grounds." "I find that those concerns do not fit easily into an analysis of whether there are reasonable and probable grounds" that the act was violated. Here's why:
Wake says for the "gift rule" to have been broken, Ford would have "accepted a financial contribution from guests." "None of the media reports on which Ms. Stiles relies indicate that he did," he added. Wake called it an "intriguing question as to whether the stag and doe admission fees were used to pay for the event itself and the raffle prize or prizes, with the net proceeds going towards paying for a wedding holiday" or other expenses, "none of this really matters." "The only question that matters is whether Premier Ford himself received any funds."
Wake says he cannot assess the "motivation or veracity" of anonymous media sources cited in Stiles' request. "In the interest of fair process I must be able to interview actual witnesses and not cardboard cutouts." Wake noted that an OPP detective has reportedly been unable to "establish reasonable and probable grounds to go forward with an investigation in the absence of witnesses." "I am in a similar situation."
Stiles claims that Premier Ford is obligated to avoid "the appearance of a conflict of interest" — though that's not necessarily what Wake sees in the act. "It was not clear to me that the Legislature intended the conflict provisions of the Act to apply to the appearance of a conflict."
Was the stag and doe OK'd by Wake? Yes, Wake says. He was asked to arrange a call with Ford on this after a related media request. Ford insisted that he "stayed clear of the planning for his daughter’s wedding and left it to his wife and daughters and their friends."
"I offered Premier Ford my opinion that there was nothing wrong with having invited personal friends, who happen to be government stakeholders, to either event, provided the provisions of the Act were adhered to, which includes not revealing confidential government information."
But there's a caveat: The Commissioner says he's not authorized "to take the same steps I would if I were conducting an inquiry" surrounding information collection. Wake says the opinion he provides is "only as good as the information provided to me by the member or their staff."
What's next: Wake is plowing ahead with an investigation into the plan to develop the Greenbelt. "We are preparing summonses for numerous witnesses to be interviewed. In the end, I will prepare and deliver a public report on our inquiry as I am required to do."
What Stiles is saying: The NDP captain says the report "clearly outlines a difference between the opinion [Wake] provided the Premier and the grounds on which a full investigation would be warranted." "I am pleased to see that the Integrity Commissioner has gathered additional material and is preparing summonses for a number of witnesses to interview related to my complaint. We look forward to his report."
NDPer Sarah Jama is headed to Queen's Park after winning last night's byelection in Hamilton Centre. It was an expected win in the first electoral test of new captain Marit Stiles in the stronghold orange riding. Jama — who faced accusations of antisemitism — dispatched an eleventh hour statement before polls closed apologizing for her "harmful comments." "This was never my intention but I recognize the impact," she said.
The numbers: Jama cruised to victory in the former provincial stomping grounds of Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath with over half the vote share — still less than Horwath's vote share in June.
The NDP and Tories' vote share dropped while the Liberals jumped from third to a distant second place.
PC MPP Vincent Ke is out of caucus after Global News reported on allegations that he was part of a Beijing election interference network. "While the allegations against Mr. Ke are not proven, they are serious," Premier Doug Ford's office said. Ke, who called the accusations "false and defamatory," said he does not want to be a "distraction to the government" and that he's stepping away to "dedicate my time to clearing my name and representing my constituents."
He's coming. President Joe Biden will make his first official visit to Ottawa next week and will address Parliament. The White House says Biden will "reaffirm the United States’ commitment" to the countries' "partnership" while Trudeau's office says they'll "continue working closely together to strengthen trade ties, create good jobs, grow the middle class, and drive economic growth that benefits everyone on both sides of the border." Biden will be accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden. CNN has the details.
The federal budget is on the way. Finance Minister Christya Freeland will release the feds' fiscal document on March 28. Details are very scant but the budget is being teased as an outline for "the next steps in the government’s plan to build a stronger and more resilient economy for everyone."
And since it's budget season: The Ford government's fiscal blueprint drops on Thursday. The Canadian Press has more on what to expect.
Here's the latest on the race to replace John Tory as Toronto's mayor:
In: Ana Bailão has thrown her hat into the ring. "I have decided to run for Mayor, and I have a plan to fix our city's services," she said in an email to supporters this morning. Bailão is teasing a "plan to fix the city's services," while building housing and upping affordability.
She's no stranger to municipal politics. Bailão served as deputy mayor before taking a step back from civic politics in November.
Out: NDPer Bhutila Karpoche has kiboshed the prospect of a mayoral bid. "After careful reflection, I've decided not to step into the race," she said.
Once floated for the top job in her party, the veteran NDPer had been encouraged to run for the city's top political office amongst progressives in the city — who see a political opportunity with Tory's resignation and the expanded mayoral powers.
To sum: It's a race with plenty at stake. The competition will reshape City Hall and the state of municipal politics after the popular chief magistrate's decision to step down. For the province, the competition will result in a new "strong mayor," who's granted sweeping authority and a veto power. Get the brief.
ON THE MOVE
The Ontario Liberals have a new executive with veteran Kathryn McGarry taking up the mantle as party prez. Here's the full roster:
Damien O'Brien — Executive Vice President
Pankaj Sandhu — Secretary
Tim Shorthill — Treasurer
Fahim Khan — Vice President (Policy)
David Farrow — Vice President (Organization)
Emily Kirk — Vice President (Communications)
Li Koo — Vice President (Engagement)
Adam Reinhardt — Regional Vice President (Central East)
Jesse Plaschka — Regional Vice President (Central North)
Karen Dadwan — Regional Vice President (East)
Lorna Jean Edmonds — Regional Vice President (East)
Kristen Oliver — Regional Vice President (North)
Doug Varley — Regional Vice President (South Central)
Bob Wright — Regional Vice President (Southwest)
David Morris — Regional Vice President (Toronto Etobicoke / Downtown / East York)
Lawrence Dawkins — Regional Vice President (Toronto York / North York / Scarborough)
Eric Demers has taken over as Director of Communications to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh — replacing Mélanie Richer who has joined Earnscliffe Strategies. Alana Cahill — who served as acting director after Richer's exit — is staying on as deputy director.
WHAT WE'RE READING
NATIONAL POST: "'Great loss': Veteran Liberal MP Marc Garneau is resigning his seat" by Christopher Nardi and Catherine Lévesque
THE TRILLIUM: "Volkswagen to make EV battery cells at newly amalgamated St. Thomas 'mega site'" by Charlie Pinkerton
TVO: "Waiting for big changes to rules about indoor air quality? Don’t hold your breath" by John Michael McGrath
TORONTO STAR: "Liberal insiders think this former Trudeau cabinet minister can beat Doug Ford" by Robert Benzie
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