Corp Comm Connects

Bonnie Crombie claims almost half as 80,000 members set to vote in Ontario Liberal leadership race
Sept. 12, 2023

The race to lead Ontario’s Liberals into the 2026 election is hitting the home stretch with the party now boasting more than 80,000 members as five candidates prepare for their first debate on Thursday night.

Almost half were claimed by the presumed front-runner, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, but rival Nate Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP for Beaches-East York, cast doubt on that Monday while declining to release his own numbers.

“Leadership campaigns are known to publish self-reported, unrealistic and inflated numbers,” he said. “We won’t be participating in this spin.”

Buoyed by summer byelection wins in Scarborough-Guildwood and the Progressive Conservative stronghold of Kanata-Carleton, Liberals are hoping the contest -- coupled with Premier Doug Ford’s drop in the polls over the $8.3-billion Greenbelt land-swap scandal -- will boost interest in the party.

The estimate of 80,000 members released Monday is “the largest in the party’s history,” said interim Liberal leader John Fraser, and more than doubles the number eligible to vote in the 2020 leadership race that followed Ford’s defeat of the Grits in the 2018 election.

“I want to thank all of the grassroots Ontarians who have joined,” Fraser added. “Ontarians are fed up with Doug Ford’s billion-dollar backroom deals and are finding a new home in the Ontario Liberal Party.”

Monday was the primary deadline to join and be eligible to vote on the last weekend in November.

Final results of the race will be announced Dec. 2 in at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, with the winner taking the helm of a nine-member Liberal caucus that sits as a distant third in the legislature behind the official opposition New Democrats under Marit Stiles.

Aside from Crombie and Erskine-Smith, the candidates are Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi (Ottawa Centre) and MPPs Adil Shamji (Don Valley East) and Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands).

As of Aug. 25, Crombie had raised more money than her rivals combined -- more than $724,000. Her camp said Monday night that it has signed up 38,700 new members while Naqvi’s team said he has “north of 31,000” across Ontario and Shamji put his number at 12,063. Hsu’s tally was not available.

With those numbers totalling more than 81,000, Erskine-Smith maintained the claims are not believable.

“The party has reported there are over 80,000 members eligible to vote in the leadership,” he said. “At the outset of this race, there were 34,000 members ... campaigns for Bonnie Crombie, Yasir Naqvi and Adil Shamji have all reported an additional 81,000 members -- approximately 35,000 more than the party’s official number of new members.”

Erskine-Smith added “we are confident that our campaign is in at least a strong second position” while Naqvi campaign director Milton Chan said its riding-by-riding tallies “put us in a competitive position for the first ballot.”

Party insiders say it will take time to sort out the numbers.

Liberals are switching to a new one-member, one-vote system with ranked ballots, where candidates are listed in order of preference, and results from each of the 124 ridings are weighted in a points system: Each riding gets 100 points, split among the candidates depending on their levels of support among members.

It’s a major change from the party’s traditional made-for-TV convention, where delegates from all ridings gather and vote in a series of ballots until the successful candidate wins more than 50 per cent support.

“I think it’s going to be very interesting this time around without the delegate system … also pretty difficult to guesstimate,” said one veteran party insider who spoke confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations.

Shamji said his strategy is shifting with the passage of the voting membership deadline (which does not apply to students who face a cut-off later this month).

“Now that this phase is over, we look forward to earning second-ballot support and convincing undecided members before the vote in November.”

The party is organizing debates in Thunder Bay, Stratford, Toronto, Ottawa and Brampton. Toronto Star Queen’s Park columnist Martin Regg Cohn is moderating a sixth on Wednesday, Sept. 20 at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Democracy Forum.

Membership in the Liberals is free as part of an effort to broaden interest in the party, which placed a distant third in the last two provincial elections and is three MPPs short of the 12 needed for official party status in the legislature and the additional staff funding that comes with it.

Candidates paid entry fees of $100,000 plus refundable deposits of $25,000 and face a campaign spending limit of $900,000 each.