Mike Harris won back-to-back majority governments for the Progressive Conservative party in the 1990s, employing his own particular style of right-wing conservatism. Ever since, many party stalwarts have insisted that running on that brand of conservatism would be the key to winning future elections.
I think they’ve come to the wrong conclusion.
In 2003, 2011, and 2014, the Tories offered up an unambiguously right-wing agenda: deep cuts to social services and public service jobs, amping up confrontation with unions, focusing on wedge issues such as bringing back chain gangs, and demonizing welfare recipients and “foreign workers." Each time, the party got beat by the Liberals. (The only exception was in 2007, when the Tories lost for other reasons — namely, offering funding for all faith-based schools).
Running on hard-right policies over and over and over had two effects: the PCs consistently lost elections, and more significantly, they alienated hundreds of thousands of so-called “Red Tories,” whom the party desperately needed to put them over the top. (Red Tories are conservatives driven more by pragmatism than by ideology who can be downright progressive on social issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion.)
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The fact is, the PCs can count on about 30 per cent of Ontario voters to support them come election time, regardless of leader or platform. And that will consistently deliver a second-place finish, as it has in four straight elections. The question is, how do they find another 7 or 8 per cent of the vote, to put them over the top and on to the governing side of the House?
The current party leader, Patrick Brown, understands this math, and thus resolved as soon as he won the leadership in 2015 to broaden the party’s base and repatriate those Red Tories who had felt so deeply in the wilderness for more than two decades. In fact, Brown’s first speech as leader was to a nurses’ union — something unimaginable in Mike Harris’s or Tim Hudak’s day.
Brown has been wildly successful at building that bigger tent. He took over a party that had 12,000 members going into the 2014 election, then reached out to multicultural communities as no one in the party ever has before and brought many Red Tories back into the fold. Brown rarely fails to channel former premier Bill Davis in his speeches, since he knows for many Ontarians, Davis is the embodiment of a successful Tory leader. (Running on his brand of Red Toryism, Davis won four straight elections between 1971 and 1985, something no one else has done in the past 100 years.) The result for Brown has been a new PC party, flush with cash and now boasting 127,000 members to boot.
Brown has offered ample evidence that he’s the more moderate, progressive leader Tories tired of losing have been waiting for. He hasn’t shied away from staring down social conservatives, much to the chagrin of a strong, vocal, but ultimately small chunk of the party’s base. He repeats like a mantra his claim that “it doesn’t matter who you love” when championing LGBTQ rights. He’s also tried to bulldoze over the climate change skeptics or tax increase haters in his party, who want him to fight the federal government’s imposition of a carbon tax. Instead, Brown has confirmed he will implement a carbon tax, although insists he’d make it revenue neutral, offsetting it with other tax cuts.
“We may lose dinosaurs over Patrick’s embrace of climate change as real and LGBTQ rights,” says a senior source close to the leader. “But we have opened ourselves up for so many more.”
And yet, I still run into moderate conservatives everywhere in Ontario who just aren’t convinced Brown is the genuine article. They remember his nearly 10 years as a Stephen Harper backbencher in Ottawa, where his voting record was hardly reflective of Red Toryism.
Others have questions about Brown’s judgment, relating to his recent allegation that Premier Kathleen Wynne “stands trial” in Sudbury. Brown may have been suggesting Wynne was on trial in the court of public opinion, but he didn’t say that, and even when he was given a chance to clarify, he didn’t offer that explanation or walk back his overreaching characterization of Wynne’s participation in that trial.
(For the record, the premier is not on trial. She was a witness testifying in the trial of her former deputy chief of staff and a prominent Sudbury Liberal partisan, both of whom were charged with violating the Election Act, which is not considered a criminal offence, although courts can impose penalties, including fines).
But rather than fix that damage, Brown doubled down and refused to apologize, and now the premier has announced her intent to sue the Tory leader for libel. It’s all so evocative of a similar moment when Tim Hudak was leader: He said something about Wynne that was clearly false, got sued, and ultimately got beat in the election. (Wynne dropped the lawsuit after defeating Hudak at the polls.) Why Brown would want to replicate that experience is unclear to me.
Brown clearly has many good things going for him. Candidates are lining up to fight for nominations, so confident are they that he’s going to form the next government. (Yes, many of those fights have turned ugly and resulted in allegations of numerous ethical breaches.)
His performance skills have improved, and it’s fair to say Brown has come a long way in this department, considering he’s overcome a debilitating childhood stuttering problem. Still, they could probably do with further improvement if Brown wants to be seen as the premier-in-waiting.
Over the next several months, you can be sure the Liberals will try to convince Ontarians that Brown is the second coming of Attila the Hun, even though the record suggests he’s not. At the very least, Brown seems to have made many conservatives think they’ve finally got a shot to defeat the Liberals.
“Mark my words,” my senior source continued. “After the next election, other conservative parties in Canada will want to emulate our success in Ontario. Conservatives will copy the Ontario PCs on the environment, gay rights, condemning Trump-like Islamophobia, not playing footsie with it. The current PC party is a real progressive conservatism and it is working.”
Maybe so. The real question is, can Brown convince the remaining skeptical Red Tories before next June’s election that he truly is one of them? That is a sale the rookie leader will have to make if he doesn’t want yet another second-place finish for his charges in the big blue tent.