Straight Talk
CHRISTINA BLIZZARD - 1996 Liberal leadership convention offers lessons for upcoming battle

1996 Liberal leadership convention T-Shirt as supplied by Queen's Park columnist Christina Blizzard.

Credits: Jack Boland / Toronto Sun / QMI Agency

CHRISTINA BLIZZARD | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO -- Been there.

Done that.

Got the T-shirt -- literally.

Yep, those of us who were at the last Liberal leadership convention in 1996 at Maple Leaf Gardens -- the old Gardens, when they still played hockey there as opposed to selling cheese -- still remember the 4:25 a.m. announcement that Dalton McGuinty was the new Liberal leader and leader of the official Opposition.

The convention had gone to a mind- and butt-numbing fifth ballot showdown between McGuinty and Gerard Kennedy -- and we were given “I survived the Liberal leadership 1996” T-shirts by sheepish Liberal convention staff.

The ballot counting was plagued by technical glitches, starting around noon Saturday, Nov. 30 and continuing until almost dawn on the Sunday morning, Dec. 1. It took more than six hours to complete the first vote.

Bleary-eyed journalists were treated to Dwight Duncan dancing the Macarena on the giant Gardens’ scoreboard. Duncan had also agreed to be wired for TV during the convention, and was heard uttering an obscenity once he realized he couldn’t beat McGuinty.

“I’d agreed to do the C-PAC video and it was one of those decisions you make when you’re younger and you think it’s the right thing,” recalled Duncan, who announced recently he’s stepping down as finance minister and won’t seek re-election provincially in his Windsor-Tecumseh riding.

“It actually was a very riveting video. It showed the emotional highs and lows,” he said.

Back then, the media had dubbed them “the C Team,” Duncan remembered in an interview last week.
“I remember one pundit saying the only way this group would see the inside of the cabinet room was if they got a tour from the legislative assembly,” he joked.

It was the worst of times for the Liberals. Under the leadership of Lyn McLeod, they’d blown an election that should have been a slam dunk for them.

The new Mike Harris government was at its peak of popularity, and it would be seven years before the Liberals would form a government.

Back then, the leadership campaign was much longer -- more than six months. And while it was a tough loss, Duncan says McGuinty reached out to all the candidates the day after his victory to bring the party together.

Duncan credits McGuinty for creating unity and getting the party to pull together.

“All of us who stood against him now hold him in the highest esteem,” he said.

“He reached out to us; he reached out to the party; he brought it all back together.

“There was a long period of time when not everyone was receptive, but he stuck with it.”

Toronto leadership contender Joe Cordiano, who came second on the first ballot and delivered 500 votes to Kennedy during the convention, was never comfortable with McGuinty as leader. It’s believed some of his supporters may have been behind a “Dump Dalton” campaign that erupted after Liberals failed to make inroads in the 1999 election.

What advice does Duncan, a veteran campaigner, have for the new group of Liberals vying for the top spot?

The stakes are much higher this time around.

Whoever wins will be premier -- even if only for a short time.

“Work hard, enjoy it. It’s actually a wonderful experience in your life,” Duncan said.

“In my case, it didn’t work out well for me at all, but I still look at it as a positive life experience.”

He remembers touring the province, drumming up support for his bid.

At one stopover, he pulled together a group of local Liberals who told him McGuinty had driven through town just before him -- and called them all.

“Stay on that phone and keep talking to delegates,” Duncan advises.

Liberals will pick their new leader the weekend of Jan. 25.

Back in 1996 Kennedy was seen as charismatic -- the golden boy tipped to lead the Liberals out of the wilderness after their election rout the year before. That gold’s a little tarnished. Now he’s seen as a three-time loser -- the guy who threw his support to Stephane Dion in the 2006 federal leadership, a move many consider catastrophic for the party. He’s poised to throw his hat into this campaign and will make an announcement Monday.

It’s a delegated convention -- meaning local riding associations will tell their representatives who to vote for -- but only on the first ballot. After that, they’re free to move to someone else.

In 1996, Kennedy topped the first four ballots before losing to McGuinty on the fifth. Duncan came third in the first two ballots -- ahead of the fourth-placed McGuinty. It wasn’t until the third ballot that McGuinty pulled ahead of Duncan.

Five candidates have so far quit cabinet to take a run: Kathleen Wynne, Glen Murray, Sandra Pupatello, Charles Sousa and Dr. Eric Hoskins -- who’s expected to make an announcement soon.

Pupatello is seen as the front-runner, with powerful support from people like Duncan and Ottawa’s Bob Chiarelli.

That support could evaporate if she doesn’t win on the first ballot.

Hmmm. I’ve learned from experience. If that happens, I’m sending out for pizza, a bottle of wine -- and a sleeping bag.

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