Liberal leadership candidates battle in last debate before vote
Crombie touts endorsement, opponent says her comparisons with Ford are concerning
Who is best equipped to beat Premier Doug Ford? Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said that’s the ballot question as Ontario Liberals vote for a new leader next weekend, with results to be announced Dec. 2. In the final debate before more than 100,000 party members across the province head to local polling places, Crombie touted her endorsement from the Star’s editorial board as the best bet among Liberal MPs Yasir Naqvi (Ottawa Centre), Nate Erskine-Smith (Beaches— East York) and MPP Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands). “I am honoured and thrilled to be recognized as the positive and progressive choice of the Toronto Star,” Crombie told about 200 Liberals gathered at a Brampton convention hall and hundreds more watching online. “We are going to take down Doug Ford … I am ready. I just need all of you working together.” While Crombie pitches herself as a strong “retail” politician like the premier, Naqvi said those comparisons should make party members wary. “Our leader has to stand in stark contrast to Doug Ford,” he told the crowd, referring to donations to Crombie’s campaign from some developers as the RCMP investigates the Progressive Conservative government’s $8.28-billion Greenbelt land swap scandal. “We cannot allow Ontarians to believe that our party and leadership have the same political instincts, political style and political friends as Doug Ford,” added Naqvi, a former provincial cabinet minister under premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne. Erskine-Smith, who has joined Naqvi in a mutual support pact to thwart Crombie, warned her stated desire to move the party more to the centre of the political spectrum could backfire. He said the Liberals can only defeat the Conservatives in 2026 by luring back voters who shifted to the New Democrats in the last two provincial elections that left the Grits in a distant third place in the legislature without the 12 MPPs needed for official party status and the extra funding that brings for staff. “If we split the vote with the NDP, we lose. Congratulations to Mr. Ford,” said Erskine-Smith, a lawyer who noted he helped rebuild the federal Liberal party under Justin Trudeau. “We have to earn the trust of progressive voters in this province.” Hsu, a first-term MPP who previously served as Kingston’s MP in Ottawa, said he is the only candidate for the leadership with a seat in the legislature and “beat the odds” by winning it in the 2022 election as Ford cruised to a bigger majority for his second term. He took aim at Crombie’s fundraising prowess as the candidate with the most money in campaign donations by a wide margin. Raising money is only one attribute needed in a leader, Hsu added, saying “otherwise you risk turning into that dumpster fire of a government” — a reference to concerns Ford’s Greenbelt changes, which he cancelled in September, were made to favour developers who donated to the Conservatives. Crombie countered Hsu, saying the Liberal party is being out-fundraised by the Ford machine by a margin of 10 to one, which would make it tough for the Grits to mount a credible campaign in 2026. “Let’s fundraise a war chest so that we can win.” Brampton, the location of the debate, has been a battleground for all three major parties. A former Liberal stronghold during their years in power from 2003 to 2018, its five ridings went solidly Progressive Conservative in last year’s election that saw a gain of three seats there from the NDP. Next weekend, the Liberals will use a new one-member, one-vote election system in which each of Ontario’s 124 ridings has the same value. The ballots are ranked, meaning the 103,206 party members eligible to vote to write down the name of their preferred leader followed by their second, third and fourth choices. According to the latest Elections Ontario financial disclosures, Crombie has raised $1,044,312, Erskine-Smith has brought in $443,051, Naqvi $359,473 and Hsu $346,357.