Ontario’s opposition leader finds himself, in some ways, in an enviable situation these days.
Despite the fact Ontarians barely know him, he’s got a huge lead over the governing Liberals in the most recent public opinion polls. And despite fumbling the sex education issue badly, his Progressive Conservatives won a recent byelection in Scarborough-Rouge River in what was a reliably Liberal seat for three decades.
Actually, one of Patrick Brown’s biggest problems these days is that he’s too popular. Tories all over Ontario who’ve ever had a hankering to run for office are coming out of the woodwork to do so. It’s been decades since so many potential PC candidates in so many different ridings have wanted to fight for nominations. They’re even doing so in seats the PCs have traditionally thought were unwinnable. They think the Liberals have run their course and they can smell victory.
For the most part, that’s a nice problem for Brown to have. More often in politics, recruiting candidates to run for you when you’re not the governing party is like pulling teeth. And when, for example, senior executives or medical specialists learn they’ll have to take an 80 per cent pay cut if they win — and that Mike Harris’ government got rid of the MPPs’ pension two decades ago — that tends to end the conversation in a hurry.
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But many Tories are so convinced they’re going to win the next election, expected in the spring of 2018, recruitment isn’t proving to be a problem. In fact, the Tories unveiled one star candidate this past week in former ombudsman André Marin, to run in the yet-to-be-called Ottawa-Vanier byelection. Party insiders tell me there are even bigger names to be unveiled in the months to come.
But the news isn’t all good in terms of who’s lining up to run. Brown, who’s only 38 years old, wants his party to have the look and feel of a fresh alternative to the Liberals. What could tarnish that image? How about a bunch of defeated former Conservative MPs, looking for redemption?
Here’s the problem. Brown is already trying to blaze his own trail and reject the efforts of those determined to peg him as an ideological right-wing Stephen Harper clone. In fact, Brown was a federal Conservative party backbencher from 2006-15. Having more ex-Harper MPs signing up to run for provincial nominations could hamper his efforts to rebrand himself and the PC party.
For example, Brown thought it was fine for Rick Dykstra, his friend and the former Conservative MP for St. Catharines, to seek the Ontario PC party presidency, which Dykstra successfully did. But now Dykstra is trying to get elected as an MPP, in former leader Tim Hudak’s old Niagara West-Glanbrook seat. That’s renewed the tension between Brown and Hudak, since Dykstra is challenging one of the members of Hudak’s riding association executive for the nomination.
We also learned last week that former Conservative MP Paul Calandra, one of the most controversial and least admired of the ex-Harperites, will seek the provincial PC nomination in Markham-Stouffville. As the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, Calandra was mocked and criticized for his particularly offensive way of ignoring opposition questions and offering answers that weren’t the slightest bit responsive. Eventually, his circumlocution became too much for even him as one day he offered a tearful apology for his behaviour.
Does Brown want all of that dredged up all over again as he tries to present a fresh look to Ontarians? Undoubtedly not.
This isn’t to say that recycling politicians at a different level of government is always a bad thing. In fact, when the Ontario Tories lost power in 2003 to Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, several high profile cabinet ministers who either lost their seats or wanted a second chance to be in the winner’s circle left Queen’s Park and tried their luck in Ottawa.
Tony Clement lost his Ontario seat in 2003, but three years later got himself elected to Parliament, then spent a decade in cabinet. He’s still the MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka and is currently running for the Conservative party leadership. John Baird got tired of being an opposition MPP in 2005, having been in Mike Harris’ cabinet since 1999. Like Clement, he decided to run for Harper’s Conservatives in 2006, won, and enjoyed nearly a decade in cabinet, culminating with the foreign minister’s job.
Similarly, Jim Flaherty became an MPP in 1995, joined the cabinet in 1997, and held his seat after the Tories lost the 2003 Ontario election. Like Baird, he resigned from Queen’s Park in late 2005 as an opposition MPP, ran for Harper in 2006, and became the longest-serving Conservative finance minister in Canadian history.
It doesn’t always work out as well as these examples suggest. In 1972 Allan Lawrence, having lost the Ontario PC party leadership to Bill Davis the year before, left provincial politics despite a senior ministerial appointment in Davis’ cabinet. He got elected to Parliament in 1972, then spent almost all of the next 16 years as a backbencher (with the exception of eight months in cabinet in Joe Clark’s short-lived government).
Obviously, Patrick Brown’s task will be to make the hard decisions that come with being leader. That means welcoming some ex-MPs who he thinks can be assets, and delivering the bad news to those whose baggage will weigh the PCs down — that he appreciates their interest, but please stand down.
Those kinds of hard calls won’t necessarily win Brown any friends. But as they say in politics, leaders don’t have friends, only interests. And Brown’s prime interest is winning.