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Meet the new interim Liberal leader
John Fraser on his priorities and holding the Ford government accountable
The former captain is steering the Liberal ship again.
Having held the top job during a tumultuous time for the party — losing official party status and being relegated to the back corner of the Legislature — John Fraser is no stranger to the job of interim leader.
“I wanted to give my colleagues the best start,” Fraser explained. The Ottawa MPP — who served in the same role before outgoing leader Steven Del Duca took over as party head — was unanimously selected by caucus a second time to serve as the interim Liberal leader. His appointment was ratified last week.
Fraser was first elected in the riding of Ottawa South after former Premier Dalton McGuinty resigned his seat. He was no stranger to provincial politics, serving as McGuinty’s constituency assistant for over a dozen years.
Fraser — never a cabinet minister — served as Parliamentary Assistant to the Health Minister for four years after serving in the same role for the Northern Development and Mines Minister and the Natural Resources Minister.
newsBeyond caught up with Fraser to discuss his return to the role of interim Grit leader, holding a larger Ford majority to account, the Liberals’ performance in the June election and what’s next for the party. Here’s what he had to say:
This is your second time taking on the role of interim leader. Why did you agree to take up the job? How is this time different than the last?
“I took the role on after deciding not to run for the permanent leadership of the party because you can’t do both at the same time. It’s not right. I wanted to give my colleagues — especially my new colleagues — the best start. I did it in 2018 and we gained a lot of ground. I think we were a very effective opposition despite not having money and not being big in numbers. But we were effective. I felt that there was much more we could accomplish this time around and I wanted to give everybody a chance to shine in their critical roles.”
The party is now in a transition phase after the election. You told reporters that the debt is going to be paid off by the spring and the party will have a leadership race. What is your top priority as the interim leader?
“The most important thing is to come together. And on September 10, we’ll do just that as a party and a provincial council. We’ll talk about what happened in the election. What do we need to do to be better next time around? What do we need to do to continue to build as a party, recognizing that we won’t always agree on everything but we have to stick together. That’s what we did from 2018 to 2022. Right now, we don’t have the same challenge with the debt. We have four — actually six — new members. There’s a lot of energy in the party. We got more votes in the NDP except we only got a quarter of the seats.
You could describe it as looking really good on the statue, playing a good game, and not putting the puck in the net. So, you know, we’re going to put more pucks in the net in the next election. Right now, my goal is to continue to help the party get ready for the next election because once one is finished, you start getting ready for the next one the next day.”
Let’s look back at what happened during the election. What do you think went wrong for your party?
“The thing that really is remarkable was the turnout. You could almost feel it coming although it still was a shock to see it at 43%. I thought they had a really big impact on our voters. So it feels like the undecided voters were saying ‘I’m actually not going to decide this time.’ We held our votes. I think we were 8000 votes less than last time. The Tories lost 400,000 and the NDP lost closer to 800,000 votes. So clearly, there were things that we did right. There are always things that you look back at and you think you could have done this better or maybe we shouldn’t have done all these things and focused on this. That’s something that requires a detailed analysis and it happens after every election, whether you win or you lose. Whatever happens, you have to take a look at what are the things that we can do better at.
I think our platform was excellent. I think our communication strategies — in terms of getting out to people — were great. I think that one of the things that may be a reality in future elections is ‘do we have to do more motivation of voters?’ Is what happened last time an aberration that just happened because of being two years into COVID-19? Is it something that all political parties have to address — especially ours — given that we’re going to have to take a look at that?”
How quickly do you want to see a leadership race get underway and what should the next leadership race be about for your party?
“I think leadership races are all about change and ideas and an opportunity for a new generation of people to take up the mantle of leadership. It’s an exciting time. We have to prepare for the next election at the same time. We’re going to have to come together next spring — I think it’s in March to have an AGM — to discuss how we’re going to vote. Is it going to be a delegated convention? Is it going to be one-member-one-vote? I think we owe that to the membership to have an informed debate about that. Once the party decides that, that’ll help us move forward. We’ll know the rules of the leadership race. I think it’s okay to give a bit of time to allow people to decide whether they want to take up that mantle or not. It’s a life-changing decision. It’s a very personal decision for people. I think we have enough time to figure out how we’re going to make it work in terms of the vote and enough time for people to decide. Then we could have a vigorous race and a real contest of ideas. We don’t have to rush. Let’s just figure out how we're going to do it first. We’ve got some time.”
Will any of your caucus members run?
“I said this the other day. I have seven leaders in my caucus. There’s eight of us right here and I’m the only one that’s not running. They all have the potential to do that. Every single one of them. The real question for them will be is it what I want to do? Am I willing to make that commitment? Does that fit with how I see my life? Any one of them could and quite frankly, I’m encouraging them all to think about it. I think they should because they all possess those qualities.”
Former Liberal leader Steven Del Duca is said to be gearing up for a mayoral bid in Vaughan. Have you spoken with him since the election?
“I spoke to Steven a couple of weeks ago when we were just going through this transition. No one worked harder than Steven in this last election. He's my friend. We were seat mates for a while. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a very smart, disciplined politician who cares about people. And so whatever he decides to do — I haven’t spoken to him — I would encourage him. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s hardworking. A really hardworking person.”
What will be your legislative priorities in this session?
“Right off the top, it’s healthcare. If you take a look at what's happening across this province — with ERs closing and all sorts of acute care services closing down and not being available to people. An emergency room closing is a really serious situation for the people who live in that community. All of these closures stem from a failure to plan for human healthcare resources. The failure of the government to do that. Bill 124 — which is the bill that restricts nurses and other healthcare professionals from being able to bargain — that’s an obstacle. We are going to push on that. Accelerating the credentialing of foreign-trained healthcare for professionals — the government has talked about that but they offer no proof and no numbers. The only proof that we see was a couple of weeks ago when the Premier said to the College of Physicians and College of Nurses to come up with a plan in two weeks. It’s no way to run a healthcare system.
A five percent increase in ODSP is not going to help people in a meaningful way. We’re going to continue to push for the government to do what we said during the last election, which is to increase it by 20%. Right now, you need to increase the threshold for people to be able to earn money while they’re on assistance so they can help themselves and maybe help themselves if they can get off of assistance. The bigger piece is the need to get a basic income. I said the other day that we need to have an adult conversation about a basic incoming. It’s something that people from all parties support. We make assistance very complicated for people who need it and very complicated for the government. I think that the right thing to do is to take a look at it. Let’s take a look at where it works and how we can simplify things so it’s easy for people who are on assistance and easy for governments to administer. The other piece is — in the Throne Speech and in the budget — there was nothing on the environment. Climate change is arguably the greatest challenge of our time and it’s not just kind of a moral ecological challenge but a financial one as well. Climate change is having a financial impact on our economy, on businesses, on families. And so we’re going to continue to push the government to come up with a concrete plan to address climate change.”
The Tories are back with a larger majority. How challenging will it be for the Liberals to be effective in holding the government accountable?
“Just look at what we’ve done. In 2018, people said that we weren’t going to be able to do that and that we didn’t stand a chance. That we were finished. We managed to hold the government to account and to be seen and heard doing that. I think that’s reflected in the fact that we held on to our votes while the other parties lost theirs in the last election. So we know how to be effective. We don’t get any money from the government. We don’t get the millions of dollars that the other parties do. But we have a tight team here and we focus on what’s important. We set priorities. We know that it’s hard to do everything when you don’t have all the resources. So focus on the things that are important. Right now in this province, it’s what is happening in our hospitals. Not just in our hospitals but in our long-term care and in home care. We don’t have enough people to care for people and that’s a problem. It’s a very serious problem.”
Do you think that the government should explore decreasing the threshold for official party status?
“Listen, we fought that fight last time around. I don’t think we’re going to spend a lot of time trying to do that. I do think that there are some basic inequities in the way that parties are funded, simply that they actually get additional funding dependent per member. They get around $100,000 per member. Independent members don’t get that no matter whether they’re green, or red, or independent like Bobbi-Ann Brady. I think that puts us at a disadvantage and I think that the government should consider that. I think it’s fair. I’m not holding out a ton of hope that it will happen. We’re only going to invest so much time in making that argument. Instead, we’re going to focus on the issues of the day and make sure that we can do whatever we can — not just in this Legislature but out in communities — to provide a strong opposition to the government that actually has solutions. You have to be able to say ‘here’s what we would do’ or ‘here’s what you should be doing that you’re not.’ I feel confident that we’ll be able to be even more effective than we were in the last four years.”
Do you expect the government to be more emboldened in their policy direction given their upsized majority?
“I do. I think that they have an agenda to privatize the healthcare system. If you look at Bill 124, it’s driving nurses to go and work for agencies. It’s more expensive to our healthcare system. Those agencies also provide profit for the shareholders and the people who work in them. So you might be paying almost twice as much for a nurse or a PSW through an agency. The government's going full tilt in terms of the privatization of long-term care. I know that they say that they’ve got some not-for-profit homes and they’ve made some commitments to them. But the financial commitments for the beds that are allocated — it’s not going to work. I know that. I do think that this government thinks it’s okay to privatize health care. I do think that they believe that it will make things better. The reality is — when you do that — you run the risk of really affecting and diminishing our publicly-funded hospitals. Just take a look south of the border. I think that they’ll be emboldened. I think they believe that they can do that and they can have a rationale for doing that. It’s unfortunate. It shouldn’t happen. We’re going to fight to maintain a strong publicly-funded healthcare system in this province. That will probably be a fight over the next four years with this government.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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