The Liberal party’s parity problem in Ontario: Cohn
Wednesday’s cabinet unveiling lays bare the party’s exposed flanks after 14 years in power, writes Martin Regg Cohn.
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A pre-election cabinet shuffle is a big deal in the life and death cycle of any government, a last chance for reincarnation or resurrection.
The Liberals are putting their best face(s) forward in the final months before a June 7 vote. But Wednesday’s cabinet unveiling also lays bare the party’s exposed flanks after 14 years in power.
Upon being sworn in Wednesday, the newly appointed (and promoted) cohort of ministers made for an impressive sight, given that it’s 2018: Seven women and one man appeared at the podium to introduce themselves.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s boast of boosting female influence in her cabinet is understandable, building on similar efforts a year ago. It counts as progress, but it can’t disguise another glaring inequality that matters at least as much, politically, as gender parity.
With the departure from cabinet of Wynne’s foremost ally and understudy, longtime deputy premier Deb Matthews (she’s not running again), the cabinet is relinquishing any claim to representing the London area, and much of southwestern Ontario all the way down the 401 to Windsor.
The urban-rural split has left the Liberal government largely a creature of big cities, with the Progressive Conservatives traditionally owning the hinterland. Now, the New Democratic Party dominates the one-time Liberal strongholds of London and Windsor, eroding even the government’s urban support base.
Even in the GTA, long a Liberal fortress, the party faces growing peril.
That explains the elevation of two junior cabinet ministers from vulnerable ridings to more high profile posts in the latest shuffle — Indira Naidoo-Harris (Halton) becomes education minister, and Eleanor McMahon (Burlington) takes over treasury board. Both narrowly won their seats in the 2014 election and are facing uphill battles in the coming June vote.
Former broadcaster Daiene Vernile (Kitchener Centre) is joining cabinet to bolster the party in a region where it is being squeezed by both opposition parties (and becomes the third ex-TV journalist transformed into a minister). Harinder Malhi (Brampton-Springdale) is being brought in to shore up support among her fellow Sikhs as the party faces competition from the Progressive Conservatives in courting voters of South Asian descent (Malhi had to explain away past public statements questioning the government’s sex education updates).
An impressive new entry is Ottawa-Vanier MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers, the Harvard-educated former law school dean who once ran the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, where she publicly condemned the Liberal government’s handling of police abuses during Toronto’s G20 summit (she’d be a natural attorney general, which would also allow for an amusing symmetry given that Michael Bryant, who once held that job, has just taken up her old post at the CCLA). She takes over the ministry of natural resources — perhaps not the most obvious use of a political resource, but a portfolio where Des Rosiers can help woo francophone voters across northern Ontario.
The only male politician in the group Wednesday was Steven Del Duca, the high profile transportation minister who moves into the higher profile post of economic development. Seen as one of cabinet’s top performers, the shift positions him well for a future leadership run, especially if he adeptly stickhandles looming trade troubles with the U.S.
Despite being the theme of the day, gender parity can’t compete with geographical parity for winning votes. Liberal representation has been in steady retreat across the southwest for years — Windsor and London once claimed the greatest clout in cabinet. Some of the newly appointed and promoted ministers are being elevated primarily to avoid being defeated.
The question on the minds of most journalists as the new ministers stood at the microphone was the proverbial elephant in the room — or in this case, the elephant on the deck: Was Wynne merely shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, enjoying the view for mere months before a democratic deluge?