Cheri DiNovo: Ontario NDP Must Acknowledge Election "Debacle"
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Cheri DiNovo: Ontario NDP Must Acknowledge Election “Debacle”

Parkdale-High Park MPP says her party abandoned its socially progressive values during the recent provincial election.

20140706 Cheri DiNovo 103 Photo by Corbin Smith

Parkdale High-Park MPP Cheri DiNovo, in an interview about the 2014 provincial election.

The Ontario New Democratic Party needs to reclaim the socially progressive values it abandoned in the recent provincial campaign, according to one of its own MPPs. In an interview on Sunday, about a month after election day, Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo blamed the NDP’s poor results in Toronto—including the loss of three MPPs—on her party’s lack of focus on poverty, child care, housing, and education. “It was a debacle from the beginning, from day one,” DiNovo told us at a cafe within the riding. “When I would hear at the door, ‘We love you, but…’ I knew we were in trouble.”

The NDP offset its three losses in Toronto with victories in Oshawa, Windsor, and Sudbury, maintaining its 21-seat count in the provincial legislature but losing the balance of power it held during the previous minority government. During the campaign the party faced harsh criticism from union allies and from within its own ranks, including a letter signed by 34 prominent social activists with longstanding NDP ties, challenging party leader Andrea Horwath to explain why she was asking NDP supporters to vote against their own principles.

Concerns about the Ontario NDP’s direction have not abated in the month since the election.

DiNovo, a decades-long activist for queer rights who was first elected in 2006, held her seat by just 525 votes, against Liberal challenger Nancy Leblanc. (In 2011 DiNovo won by 3,488 votes.) “I pretty much ran against my party in terms of platform,” said DiNovo. “Many of our supporters—who voted Liberal—saw more progress in the Liberal budget than they saw in our platform. That was a core mistake.” She attributes her victory to running a municipal-style campaign that highlighted her constituency work, rather than that platform.

DiNovo’s decision to speak out about the state of her party coincides with considerable internal ONDP strife. Several key party organizers have already met to discuss some next steps, including removing current members of the party’s executive. And as the Globe and Mail reported, party leader Andrea Horwath’s chief of staff Gissel Yanez, and advisor Elliott Anderson, will be leaving their positions. ONDP president Neethan Shan, who ran unsuccessfully for the party in Scarborough-Rouge River, registered to run for Toronto city council in Ward 42 (Scarborough-Rouge River) the following week.

There does not appear to be any concerted effort to replace Horwath herself, however. With a federal election coming in 2015 (which will pull resources and talent from the provincial party), and no clear consensus candidate that the progressive wing of the party could rally around, there’s no sense that a leadership challenge is in the offing. Horwath faces a leadership review in November, at the party’s convention; according to the ONDP constitution, she needs a majority of delegate votes to continue as party leader. Critics notwithstanding, she is widely expected to clear that hurdle without difficulty.

DiNovo says that while Horwath has been widely criticized for the party’s campaign and platform, the NDP faces broader leadership challenges: “Whatever happened is not the leader’s issue alone…. This a problem of leadership generally, and there’s a whole strategic team involved in that.” In reference to the departure of Yanez and Anderson, DiNovo said, “You can change the strategists, you can change the chief of staff … those are probably good things to do. But at the end of the day it’s about who we are as a party and what we stand for that we need to look at as New Democrats.”

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One of the most prominent of the protest letter’s signatories was activist Judy Rebick, who told us that the ONDP’s campaign was a sharp departure from the party’s socially progressive roots. “The NDP has always believed that government has a constructive role to play in society,” she said. “It was as if they gave up on that in this election. A number of the people who signed the letter tried to talk to Andrea before the letter went out—she wouldn’t talk to anybody.”

DiNovo said that while the party did consult the grassroots membership before the campaign, the party’s platform ultimately did not reflect those consultations. Nigel Bariffe, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the NDP in Etobicoke North, disagrees, and said riding associations and candidates were shut out of the process. “The type of platform that came forward wasn’t one that went through a democratic process,” Bariffe told us in a phone interview. “As a candidate, I didn’t have any say.” Bariffe was also adamant that changes within the ONDP leadership are necessary. He expressed disappointment with the treatment he received from some senior party staffers, particularly Yanez. “They’re gonna have to fall on their swords,” he said.

DiNovo says the NDP will not regain frustrated supporters by portraying the recent election as progress, which has been the official line—focusing on the fact that the party improved its share of the popular vote by one per cent, and that efforts to attract voters outside of Toronto yielded gains. “It’s important for our voters in Toronto to know that we did not see that campaign as a success,” DiNovo says. “I think voters appreciate honesty.”

“I understand that we were trying to appeal to Conservative voters outside of Toronto, but we can’t ever give up our core values and principles,” DiNovo continued. “To do it is to become another Liberal party, which is the last thing I want.” She promised to keep fighting for what she sees as critical progressive issues in her riding, including housing, the electrification of the Pearson Airport rail link, and Toronto’s ongoing struggles with the Ontario Municipal Board.

“We’ve lost the ability to talk about investment across party lines,” said DiNovo. “But that we’ve lost the ability to speak about it in the New Democratic Party … that’s not us, and that shouldn’t be us.”