Months before the provincial election, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PCPO) has been thrust into the spotlight following the resignation of Patrick Brown and the launch of one of the most condensed leadership processes in Canadian political history.
The on-again, off-again Brown leadership has created an unprecedented level of dissention within the Party, which has been played out in full view of the public. It is often true that internal party politics are more bruising than anything another party can bring to bear. The Martin-Chrétien wars among federal Liberals come to mind. However, nothing compares to the spectacle currently playing out a mere four months prior to an election.
Critics would point out that the accusations of rot within the party, accusations of financial impropriety and criminal investigations of nominations meetings would render the PCs incapable of presenting a compelling alternative to the Wynne government – not ready for prime time at best, untrustworthy at worst.
A more charitable assessment would say that the PCs have confronted the problem and are proving that they are prepared to do what is necessary to present the public with a compelling alternative in the next election. Some pundits have argued that a change in leadership is exactly what will propel the party into government, citing Brown as the weak link.
While the events of recent weeks may have many pundits wondering whether the PCs are ready to govern, recent polls have shown that public support for Ontario’s Official Opposition has not been negatively impacted – in fact some polls are showing that support has grown. This may not be surprising as political parties tend to see a bump in popularity during leadership races. The biggest change coming out of the leadership may not be in the Leader, but in the opening provided to the other parties with the deviation from the ‘carefully-crafted-not-to-offend’ platform, The People’s Guarantee.
Brown’s second resignation in a month may provide the pathway for clearing out salacious issues and returning the focus to comparative policy agendas – for better or worse.
The key political questions currently being posed are whether Ontarians have already decided that change is necessary, which would render Wynne unelectable, and if so can the PC Party overcome the turmoil that has engulfed them over the past month. Or, will Ontarians look to the NDP to provide the change they seek. This, of course, presupposes that the Liberals can’t turn the PC misfortune to an advantage with a stellar campaign and once again collapse the left of centre vote onto the Liberal Party.
With the PC Party set to elect its Leader on March 10, there are four declared candidates in the race. Here is what we know about the individuals running to lead the PC Party into the next campaign.
Patrick Brown Is in…And Then Out
In a surprise twist just hours before the nomination deadline, former Leader Patrick Brown filed his application to run for Leader — to replace himself. Since his resignation in January, Brown has been on a communications offensive to clear his name following allegations of sexual misconduct. Just days after re-launching his leadership bid Brown withdrew from the race, something a number of his opponents and Party leadership had been calling on him to do.
What will be interesting to watch in the coming days is whether Brown decides to publicly move his support to another candidate. If so, this could prove a double edge sword – while candidates may risk associating themselves with the conflict surrounding Brown, they may also see an opportunity to gain votes from die-hard Brown supporters who continue to stand by him. This includes more than a dozen nominated PC candidates who supported Brown’s short-lived leadership bid, and could deliver untapped votes from their respective ridings on March 10.
With the most provincial political experience, Christine Elliott’s strategy is to use the expedited timeline to her advantage and position herself as the only candidate with the background and expertise at Queen’s Park to defeat Kathleen Wynne and unite the Party. Elliott brings some baggage to the race with two failed leadership bids under her belt, a fact that her opponents have been quick to point out. Elliott’s campaign is being run by Fred DeLorey, former Director of Political Operations for the federal Conservative Party.
While less known in provincial politics, DeLorey also served as Campaign Manager to Erin O’Toole during his third place finish in the 2017 federal leadership process. Elliott appears to be taking the organizational aspects of the leadership to heart, having learned previously that public and media momentum doesn’t always translate into votes in the one-member one-vote system. However, given the limited time for selling new memberships this process has become more of a persuasion oriented campaign. To this end, her overall popularity and name recognition should help.
Endorsements: 11 Members of Provincial Parliament, 5 Members of Parliament (Federal), 13 PCPO Nominated Candidates
Abandoning his plans to run for Mayor of Toronto, Doug Ford was the first candidate to publicly join the leadership race. A prominent political figure in the Greater Toronto Area, a key battleground in the next election, Ford hopes to win the leadership on an ‘anti-elite’ campaign that is targeted at both the Liberal government as well as ‘Conservative insiders’ he claims have abandoned the grassroots and blames for the Party’s previous electoral misfortunes.
While this is always a productive vein to mine within the PC Party, Ford’s attacks on Patrick Brown may alienate him from some of this constituency who were big backers of Brown in the last leadership campaign. At the helm of Ford’s campaign is political strategist and commentator Michael Diamond, who previously served as Director of Operations for Rob Ford while as a candidate for his run for Mayor of Toronto. Ford will rely upon significant relationships within Ontario’s diverse communities, building on his solid foundation of support within these communities inside the City of Toronto. He has also garnered the support of major social conservatives who will tap a small but vocal group of activists. (NOTE: Corrected post to note Diamond served on candidate Rob Ford’s campaign team, not his Mayoral staff)
Endorsements: 1 Provincial Member of Parliament, 1 PCPO Nominated Candidate
Tania Granic Allen
The least known of the candidates, Tania Granic Allen has clearly staked her ground as the social conservative in the race. As President of the education advocacy group Parents as First Educators, Granic Allen has quickly mobilized her campaign around one policy priority, namely to repeal Ontario’s sex-education curriculum. It is clear that her strategy is to positon herself as an advocate for the traditional right-wing of the Party, a constituency that felt largely ignored and alienated during Brown’s time as Leader.
Caroline Mulroney was the biggest star candidate to be recruited by Patrick Brown, largely on the basis of her family name. As a first-time candidate, Mulroney’s biggest challenge is to convince Party members that she has the skills to take on seasoned campaigners Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath in the next election. Within the current leadership race, Mulroney’s strategy is to highlight her experience in the private and charitable sectors and to present herself as a fresh face able to bring about generational change.
With none of the baggage that other candidates may bring to the table, she may have the best chance at representing an outside perspective. This will, of course, be countered by those who will say she is inexperienced, and has not paid her dues in the Party or the Province. Mulroney has tapped Andrew Boddington to lead her team. Boddington was previously appointed Campaign Manager for the PCs, but resigned out of protest when Patrick Brown initially refused to step aside amidst sexual misconduct accusations.
Endorsements: 5 Members of Provincial Parliament, 9 Members of Parliament (Federal), 16 PCPO Nominated Candidates
While general election campaigns provide an opportunity for political parties to debate and defend policies and platforms, leadership races are traditionally focused on ‘ground game’ – that is, signing up more members than one’s opponent and ensuring that those members show up to vote. Policy that does emerge is often tactical and targeted at a specific constituency or group within the membership.
With just over a month between the launch of the leadership process and its conclusion, this race is a bit different. With little time to sign up new members, this race will be largely about persuading existing members. Candidates would appear to be scrambling to differentiate themselves from the next person, without a great deal of time to do major policy analysis. This brings with it the risk of making promises that either can’t – or shouldn’t – be kept.
Of the policy issues that have emerged, two have been front and centre: the implementation of a carbon tax and Ontario’s sex-education curriculum. These subjects featured prominently in the first leadership debate, during which time all four declared candidates steered the Party to the right by disavowing the carbon tax commitment that was part of The People’s Guarantee and criticizing either wholly – or in part – the Liberal government’s sex-education curriculum.
With just over two weeks left before the election date candidates seem content to chip around the edges of the Platform, with a general acceptance that it will be the foundation for the Party going into the election.
The second and final leadership debate will be held in Ottawa on February 28th, and present one last opportunity for candidates to make their case to Party members en masse.
StrategyCorp will be closely following the debate and we look forward to sharing our insights on how the candidates fared and how the race is shaping up. In the meantime, following are some key dates to keep an eye on:
Wednesday, February 28: Leadership Debate, live from the Shaw Centre in Ottawa at 6:30 PM. The debate will be hosted by Althia Raj, the Ottawa Bureau Chief of Huffington Post Canada, and will be available to watch via livestream at: http://leadership.ontariopc.ca.
March 2-8, 2018: Voting Period for PC Party Members to elect the new Leader.
March 10, 2018: The results of the leadership race will be announced at the Hilton Markham Convention Centre (8500 Warden Avenue, Markham).