Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) Leader Patrick Brown is projected to win the Simcoe North by-election, and will become Leader of Ontario’s Official Opposition once he is sworn in as a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP).
Although it was widely predicted that Brown would win the riding that Garfield Dunlop had held since its creation in 1999, the stakes were high for both him and the party. A failure to win would have left Brown in a precarious position, unable to lead the Official Opposition in the legislature. In that scenario, confidence in his leadership might have eroded significantly.
Next Steps for Patrick Brown as (soon to be) Leader of Ontario’s Official Opposition
Brown will now be able to devote his full energy to the challenge of leading the PCs to government in 2018. His priority will be the rapidly approaching legislative session (which starts on September 14, 2015), where he will continue his efforts to introduce himself to the broader public. Brown will be particularly interested in demonstrating a strong presence on the floor of the Legislature and in the media events that follow.
Economic development, with a particular focus on Brown’s stated priorities of good roads, affordable energy and reduced red tape, will be among the first items to be raised as part of his legislative agenda. It is also expected that he will increase criticism of the proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, characterizing it as a payroll tax that will negatively impact employers in Ontario, as well as the partial sale of Hydro One.
Further policy development and announcements will be subject to a wider consultation effort that Brown is expected to undertake with members of the party and stakeholders over the next several months. During the PC leadership campaign, Brown pledged meaningful consultations with the party’s grassroots and not to govern from the centre. The PC Annual General Meeting (tentatively scheduled for late March 2016) will likely include a policy development component to seek feedback from members.
In the interim, Queen’s Park observers can expect Brown to fulfill one of his central tasks as Leader: naming a Deputy Leader and the members of his Shadow Cabinet.
Conventional wisdom in politics is that opposition parties do not win elections; governments defeat themselves. For three elections in a row, many PCs had hoped that that mantra would result in the defeat of incumbent Liberal governments facing serious challenges to re-election. Brown is unlikely to adopt a passive approach to leading the Conservative Party. He is pragmatic, seemingly tireless and aggressive. While largely unknown to the general public in Ontario for now, we do not expect that to be the case come the provincial general election.
Liberals’ Critique of Brown’s Voting Record Did Not Have an Impact
During the by-election campaign, the Ontario Liberals criticized Brown’s voting record in the Canadian House of Commons in an effort to portray him as an extremist. This effort had seemingly little impact on the outcome, likely due to the level of PC support in the rural riding. Also, in the time-honoured tradition of tacking left after a leadership nomination, Brown sought to get ahead of this line of attack starting with his PC leadership victory speech, where he pledged not to revisit any social issues. He was, moreover, the first Ontario PC Leader to participate in an official party delegation to Toronto’s Pride Parade. Nevertheless, the Liberals are expected to continue to pursue this line of attack. The effort to brand Brown as outside of the mainstream might not have played well in the more rural riding of Simcoe North, but it could produce results in urban ridings where socially conservative values are much rarer.
Elliott’s Resignation Changes the Dynamics of the Ontario PC Caucus
Although it was anticipated, the resignation last week of Christine Elliott – one of the most recognizable PC MPPs in Ontario and the standard bearer for the party’s Red Tory faction – is a significant one, potentially shifting the internal dynamics of the Party. Elliott was a tactful, counterbalancing voice, and there is no clear successor to her within the Official Opposition Caucus. Note that Premier Wynne will have to call a by-election within six months from August 28th, and, given that Whitby-Oshawa is one of only two ridings represented by the PCs in the Greater Toronto Area, that by-election is likely to be contested fiercely.
Brown’s appointment of a new Deputy Leader and Shadow Cabinet should also provide some further insight into the implications of Elliott’s departure, as well as into his management style and those members whom he values most. It is expected that former PC leadership candidates Vic Fedeli, Lisa MacLeod and Monte McNaughton will be appointed to prominent roles.