Several weeks ago, I wrote about the chances of Barrie MP Patrick Brown becoming leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party and largely dismissed them. Surely, the PCs of our fair province wouldn’t go for the remix version of Tim Hudak over someone with the experience, tact, and legacy of Christine Elliott? I guess I don’t know Ontario PCs as well as I thought I did.
Winning handily by a margin of 61.8 per cent to 38.2 per cent, Brown now has the unenviable task of in just three short years rebuilding the PC Party in Ontario and making them election ready to unseat the ruling Liberals, who will likely still be lead by the Premier, Kathleen Wynne, in 2018. But the question is, can a federal backbencher with a decade-long career having seemingly done nothing to distinguish himself hope to combat two veteran provincial politicians on their own ground? Especially when he doesn’t have a seat in Queen’s Park yet?
To Brown’s credit, he immediately set an optimistic tone is acceptance speech on Saturday noting his plans to work across inter-party animosity with both outgoing leader Hudak and his chief rival Elliott. He also talked about diversity and reaching out to new constituencies to build the party for a government that “Ontarians deserve.”
“The party I am building is very different than the party you are accustomed to covering,” he said. “This is the party that is the most diverse in Ontario now. This is a party that has labour leaders, public-sector, private-sector unions actively engaged in supporting my candidacy.”
Sounds good. But then there’s how people who know about Patrick Brown, who aren’t Patrick Brown supporters, think of him. Or, to phrase it like Liberal Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, Brown is “a radical Tea Party fundamentalist who is far outside the mainstream in this province.”
That was the subject of an editorial I wrote here on Open Sources last month shortly after the socially conservative Monty McNaughton left the leadership race and tossing his support to Brown, and after the Brown campaign’s co-director MPP Rick Nicholls said in the legislature that it’s “Not a bad idea,” to let school boards opt out of teaching evolution. It was a message vacuum suck in the midst of the debate over the new sex-ed curriculum that then-interim PC leader Jim Wilson said “obviously didn’t help our position.”
Probably not helping Brown reach beyond a social conservative base are other endorsements in the wake of his victory. Campaign Life Coalition, which is an anti-abortion group and one of the chief organizers of the week-long “strike action” against the new sex-ed curriculum, immediately posted their congratulations to Brown on their website. “We are happy with Patrick Brown’s election,” said Mary Ellen Douglas, Ontario President for Campaign Life Coalition. “But the hard work of influencing politics and policy has just begun. We will continue to work with pro-life and pro-family candidates and voters regardless of party to ensure these issues are raised effectively and find space in the public square.”
Another vocal Brown supporter was Charles McVety, a leader in the evangelical community who’s opposed to same-sex marriage, held a protest in front of the Royal Ontario Museum for the way they “sugar coated” Darwin’s theories of evolution, and who’s critical of the environmental movement because “I believe this taxing and trading of ‘air’ will fund the one world government of the Anti-Christ.”
If I may though, McVety was right about one thing though when he told The Star, “The new Canadians are socially conservative — that is a story that most miss.”
That is true, look at the faces attending the rallies against the Liberals plans to update sex-ed. But listening to those protestors though it’s hard to see how Brown can hope to build coalition on people that believe misinformation. Like all social change in Canada, the protest is always loudest before its passed. How many rallies to you see against abortion? Same-sex marriage? Many of the people against the alterations to sex-ed have so misread what’s actually in it, they maybe surprised how tame it is once it’s actually being taught in classrooms. And not working in Brown’s favour, he still has to wait three years to campaign on it.
But it’s not the social conservative support that Brown has to worry about, his bona fides there are solid. To win Ontario, his coalition must include Red Tories, people scared off by the Tea Party label that clung to Hudak as if he were walking through a field of burs. Three Liberal terms, a myriad of scandals, a populace looking for change they can believe in, and Wynne still came back to power, and stronger than ever. People saw the heir apparent, and they screamed like Mary Philbin when Lon Chaney took off his mask in Phantom of the Opera.
Aside from perceptions that he only swings from the hard-right, Brown faces a number of other challenges, primary among them is that he has no seat. It was the same backfoot that John Tory began his less than illustrious career in provincial politics on having to first take the seat of former Premier Ernie Eves to get his front row spot in Queen’s Park, and then losing in his home riding of Don Valley West to then Education Minister Kathleen Wynne in 2007. Tory kept trying to lead the party from the visitor’s gallery, but the PCs needed someone in the Legislature. Enter Hudak in 2009.
Another challenge identified by the Globe and Mail is “The Redford Factor,” meaning Alison Redford, the disgraced former Premier of Alberta. She too came into provincial politics after years in the federal realm, and like Brown, she didn’t enjoy the popular support of the provincial caucus; that support went to former Minister of Health and Wellness Gary Mar. Like Brown, Redford had to build a coalition from the outside, but unlike Redford, Brown enjoyed a much bigger victory than Redford, who won in 2011 with barely two per cent of the vote. Hopefully, he learned the lessons of “sky palace.”
Still, convincing party establishment that he’s ready for prime time is Brown’s biggest challenge. How do you represent a riding like Barrie for almost 10 years and not even get within sniffing distance of a parliamentary secretary role? Where did this apparent ambition come from? The only piece of legislation he’s seemed to attach his name to is a private members bill called the Breast Density Awareness Act:
This enactment requires the Government of Canada to encourage the use of existing initiatives in order to increase awareness among women about the implications of heterogeneous or dense breast tissue for breast cancer screening, and to assist women and health care providers in making well-informed decisions regarding screening.
An important health issue for Canadian women to be sure, but in so much as you can’t build a career as an artist with one sold paint, you can’t build a career as a legislator with one piece of legislation.
But perhaps the most damning of Brown’s still-early tenure as the PCs new golden boy comes from within. Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, once a provincial PC candidate herself, was left uninspired by the two leadership candidates left standing, but of Brown she said:
But what Brown’s people seem to be in denial about is his own baggage — his social conservative roots, including voting to reopen the debate on same-sex marriage in 2006, his vote against empowering rights for transgendered people two years ago and his endorsement from the Campaign Life Coalition — an anti-abortion group.
In summation: “I don’t believe he can knock off Wynne in 2018.”
I’m not sure how Levy feels about Brown today, whether she might hold her tongue for the benefit of her party and her ideology, but as Hudak learned to his detriment, if you can’t get the establishment on side, your boat is sunk before it leaves the dock. Can Brown demonstrate political acumen to be the leader his party needs right now? Time will tell, because he can’t go into 2018 looking like Hudak 2.0.