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Ontario: Path Ahead Becoming Clear After PC Leadership Upheaval

In the span of two days, Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario PC Party, MPP Vic Fedeli was chosen as Interim Leader, and the PC Party announced it was launching a hurry-up leadership race – all as the June 7, 2018 provincial election creeps closer.

So, what’s next for the PC Party? What’s next for the governing Liberals? And what’s next for the NDP?

What’s next for the PCs

The PC caucus unanimously selected MPP Vic Fedeli to be the party’s Interim Leader. Fedeli has been a MPP since 2011, representing the riding of Nipissing.  Prior to that, he was mayor of North Bay, Ontario from 2003 to 2010.

Quick on the heels of the PC caucus electing Fedeli leader on Friday, the party’s executive opted to move, on an expedited basis, to hold a leadership race to select a permanent leader.  Specific timing is unclear at the moment, but it is expected the race will be concluded within 60 days.

Many pundits and media experts challenge the idea that a leadership contest is the right path.  But consider this:

  • There is no path that allows an interim leader to be waived-in as the permanent choice to lead the party. The PC Party constitution requires a democratic process to be followed. To do otherwise would risk a court challenge.
  • If an interim leader were to lead the Party into the election, it would open the Party to questions of who the people might really be electing, would it be Vic Fedeli, or someone else?
  • Alternatives could have been to try to amend the constitution prior to the election to allow for the appointment of an interim leader as permanent, provided they were endorsed in a general election (i.e. elected Premier); or committing to do so immediately following election. The challenge, of course, is that there is no certainty an amendment would be passed. That requires at least two-thirds of member votes cast at a general meeting, or a special general meeting of the Party.
  • The resulting media attention of the Tory leadership race could be beneficial – so long as it doesn’t expose rifts within the Party.

The party executive weighed all these options and chose certainty, transparency and inclusiveness over the easy, or politically expedient option.  The biggest challenge the PC Party will face throughout this leadership contest will be remaining united, and to avoid being baited by the Liberals into a factional fight within itself.  This is clearly not a position they wanted to be in, but it is one they have had to be thoughtful and deliberate about.

Despite these challenges, the PC Party is in a sound financial and organizational position. It has a centrist platform that a new leader could augment to suit the tactical reality of the writ period. And polls have showed it leading the Liberals for most of the past two years – something not attributable to Brown.

What’s next for the Liberals

The Ontario Liberal Party leadership are struck with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is obvious relief that an opponent who was visibly winning is now gone, and anticipation of turmoil among its opponents. On the other hand, there is trepidation that a good leadership choice by the PCs could see a new Leader of the Opposition enter the writ period on a political honeymoon.

The Liberals will stick to their fairness agenda – both out of conviction and because the policies are popular. Expect to see them roll-out or re-announce policies around this fairness agenda, like the minimum wage increase, and use the bully pulpit of the Provincial Budget and the Legislature to get attention for these policies.

What’s next for the NDP

Within minutes of the allegations against Patrick Brown becoming public, Andrea Horwath was calling for the PC leader to step aside. Her careful statement appealed to higher standards in public life and urged the PC leader to do the right thing. “Patrick Brown must resign, immediately. He deserves his day in court, but no person can lead a political party in this province with allegations like these hanging over his head.” Now that Brown has resigned, New Democrats face a disrupted political landscape with new opportunities and challenges.

On the one hand, the sudden vacancy at the head of the official opposition during the crucial pre-election election period dramatically resets everyone’s electoral fortunes, and removes the imagined inevitability of any one post-election scenario. In the long run, New Democrats can feel some advantage that the post-Brown period will give voters and pundits the opportunity to give Horwath, the longest tenured of all the leaders, another look.

But while a leadership race may disadvantage the PCs from an organizational perspective, New Democrats will be concerned that it will also eat-up media coverage they had hoped to earn in the pre-election. The net-effect is a much shorter period for the NDP to roll out and popularize policy ideas and candidates.

A larger strategic question is tied up in what the Tories do next: What tone does the PC party take under a new leader? Will the more the moderate platform and approach pursued by Brown be replaced by a hard-right approach which could invigorate NDP voters or potently swing the ballot question from “is it time to turn the page on a decade of Liberal rule?”, to a 2014-style referendum on right-wing policies. New Democrats will now need to plan for both scenarios.

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