OTTAWA — Toronto-area Liberals are hoping a popular leader and a renewed focus on new Canadians will help beat back opposition rivals in the hard-fought battles for GTA seats in 2015.
After a string of election defeats that ultimately knocked the party to third place in 2011, the Liberals are heading into the election year optimistic they can end their losing streak.
Almost nine years of Conservative rule have left voters ready for change, says Peter Fonseca, the Liberal candidate in Mississauga East—Cooksville.
“There is a need for change in the country, there’s a need for change in direction, there’s a need for change in leadership,” Fonseca told the Toronto Star in an interview.
To help make that change a reality, the Liberals brought 122 of their candidates to Ottawa last week for a campaign boot camp to learn about the “tools and strategies” for the 2015 election, the party said in a news release.
On Wednesday morning, the candidates joined Liberal MPs for the weekly caucus session, resulting in a crowded Parliament Hill meeting room that for some evoked memories of the days when the party was in power.
In his address to the crowd, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau praised the “extraordinary” experience of the candidates.
“The Liberal commitment is to building a team that is as diverse as our great nation,” Trudeau said.
The Star sat down with three candidates from the Greater Toronto Area to discuss the Liberal game plan to win seats in Canada’s largest city and across the country.
Fonseca is the political veteran, a former provincial cabinet minister who left Queen’s Park to try his hand at federal politics, losing to Conservative Wladyslaw Lizon in Mississauga East—Cooksville by 676 votes in the 2011 vote.
Dr. Jane Philpott is a family doctor running in Markham–Stouffville against Conservative Paul Calandra, who is the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.
Arif Virani, a lawyer who spent time as an attorney prosecuting genocide at the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, faces New Democrat Peggy Nash, who herself defeated a Liberal to take the riding in 2011.
Key to success will be connecting with the diverse populations across Greater Toronto, Philpott said.
“I think one of the things Team Trudeau is going to do really well is reach out to that diversity,” she said. “We are really focusing on what we call the ground game.”
Successive elections have cost the Liberals their once iron grip on Toronto-area ridings. Since taking office in 2006, the Conservatives have made critical inroads into 905 region ridings and in 2011, made further gains, including important wins in Toronto itself, winning ridings such as York Centre, Etobicoke Centre, Don Valley West and Eglinton-Lawrence, held by Finance Minister Joe Oliver.
The 2011 election was good for the New Democrats too as they won ridings like Parkdale—High Park, Beaches—East York and Scarborough Southwest.
The Liberals pin some of the NDP’s success in 2011 on the popularity of leader Jack Layton, who died just months after the vote.
With Trudeau now at the helm of their party, Liberals say the leader advantage has swung in their favour after the disappointing tenures of Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion, who both failed to connect with voters.
Since Trudeau took over the leadership in April 2013, the Liberals have enjoyed a surge in the polls, consistently placing ahead of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
“He has a magnetism about him that attracts,” Fonseca said of Trudeau.
Virani says the strategy is already paying dividends.
“Things bode well going forward and I think that’s been reflected in the byelections that we’ve had, not just in the GTA but in urban areas across the country,”
In June byelections, Liberal Adam Vaughan stole Trinity-Spadina from the New Democrats and the Liberals held Scarborough-Agincourt. More recently, Conservative Pat Perkins held the riding once represented by Jim Flaherty but the Liberals finished a strong second.
But with less than a year to go before the Oct. 19, 2015 election, the once strong lead held by the Liberals over the Conservatives has narrowed to a horse race, highlighting the hard work that lies ahead.
To continue winning, Liberals say they need to reach out to new immigrants, a demographic that had traditionally voted for the party but has been actively wooed by the Conservatives in recent years.
The Liberals have had to wake up that they can no longer take this segment of voters for granted, said Virani, himself a Ugandan-Asian refugee who came to Canada with his family in 1972 to escape Idi Amin’s rule.
“What we’re trying to do is reengage those people that we may have historically taken for granted,” he told the Star.
“The GTA is filled with those people who are just like me, who came here as part of a wave of immigration . . . and those are people who aren’t going to automatically vote Liberal every single time. Those are Liberal votes you have to earn. That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Greater Toronto has also figured in the election strategy of federal parties and even more so now that the region is getting 11 new seats in time for the next vote.
Harper’s frequent visits to the Greater Toronto this year, mostly recent for a business roundtable on Thursday in Mississauga drives home the importance of the region for all parties in 2015.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair says he has made some 40 to the GTA this year.