Four things we learned from the Progressive Conservatives’ policy motions

ANALYSIS: Voters finally have some evidence of what the Tories will run on in next year’s election. John Michael McGrath takes you through the highlights
By John Michael McGrath - Published on October 13, 2017
Patrick Brown
The PCs offered a glimpse this week at what their 2018 election platform might look like. (Matthew O'Mara/TVO)

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For at least a year, reporters at Queen’s Park have periodically peppered Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown with questions about his plans for governing the province should he win the 2018 election. Brown has, with notable exceptions (sex ed, abortion), largely kept mum on what the Tories would do, instead advising reporters to wait for the PCs’ policy conference in November, when the party votes on policy positions that will inform the its election platform.

Well, on Thursday the party revealed what motions it wants members to vote on — the voting itself will happen before the conference, ensuring no messy floor fights — and we can see at least a little of what’s there, what’s not, and what all that might say about a potential PC government.

Here are some of the highlights.

1. Don’t startle the horses                                                

At least since losing power in 2003, the Tories have had a tin ear for what will freak out voters. From separate schools in 2007 to chain gangs in 2011 to 100,000 job cuts in 2014, previous PC leaders have consistently proposed policies that have turned off thousands of Ontario voters.

Among the motions made public yesterday, there are no such lightning rods. There’s a pledge to put consumer choice at the forefront of the province’s liquor policy, to repeal the Green Energy Act, to implement new rules for existing wind energy projects aimed at protecting birds and bats, and to eliminate the Drive Clean program. Progressives may disagree with some or all of these moves, but they don’t represent radical new thinking on the PCs’ part.

Perhaps most notable is the total absence of hot-button social issues. Brown told the Canadian Press he won’t allow any discussion of abortion or sex ed at the convention, and if those on the party’s right flank head for the exits as Brown pitches a more moderate vision for the PCs, he’s okay with that.

2. Are the Liberals all bad? It’s hard to tell

The motions predictably take a few jabs at the incumbent Liberals for their perceived sins over the past 15 years. But if, in the interest of fairness, we were to take the Tories and the Liberals at their words, we’d find the two parties agree on a lot. Some examples: the PCs want to reduce red tape and making it easier to build new homes to make housing more affordable; the government has a task force looking at exactly that. Team Blue wants a home renovation tax credit to encourage energy efficiency; Team Red has had one periodically throughout the last decade. The Tories want to give Ontario more control over immigration to this province by “enhancing” the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program… the Liberals continue to modify. The Tories don’t want to create new rules and regulations without removing them elsewhere? This is more or less current government policy.

With the PCs desperate to appeal to moderate Ontarians, it’s only natural that some of their positions would mimic those of the party that’s bested them at the polls in four straight elections. The risk, of course, is that the Tories may appear to approve of much of what the Liberals are doing.

3. But yes, the Tories still think Liberals are bad

Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of specifics the Tories have in their sights. One motion calls on the party to complete the environmental assessment for the GTA West highway planned for York and Peel Regions, which the Liberals have put in suspended animation. (This isn’t without political risk: environmental groups have said the highway threatens to undermine the Greenbelt and other anti-sprawl policies.) Another recommendation is to change how provincial gas-tax money is shared by making it available to all municipalities instead of only those with transit systems. The Tories also want to halt further sales of Hydro One shares; and for rural Ontario, there’s a motion calling on the government to support the horse-racing industry — another issue the Liberals will likely be defending in court in the future.

4. Does any of this matter?

The Tories have played their policy cards close to the vest for years — ever since Brown won the leadership — and there’s both cynicism and sincerity behind that strategy. The Tories aren’t eager to give the Liberals any grounds on which to attack them, at least until voters have grown more comfortable with Brown. But he won the 2015 leadership vote as an outsider against numerous sitting MPPs in part by arguing that the party’s inner circle had left its membership behind, allowing the leader’s office to make too many decisions on its own.

The big question is whether any of this will matter after election day. If Brown loses, the answer will obviously be no. But if he wins, it’s not clear what the answer will be: the biggest policies since 2014 — carbon pricing and the privatization of Hydro One — weren’t part of the 2014 Liberal platform. For all the Grits’ demands that the Tories produce a plan (read: a plan they can attack), they haven’t exactly stuck to the script themselves.

Events challenge any government, and if Brown wins next year, he’ll doubtless end up running for re-election in 2022 having broken some promises. What will matter is which ones he chooses to break, and which ones he chooses to keep.

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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