It’s the best of times and the worst of times for Ontario Tories

By Steve Paikin - Published on July 19, 2017
Ontario Conservative Leader Patrick Brown
Are PC Leader Patrick Brown and his advisers 'ready for prime time?' (Peter Power/CP)

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It’s a strange time for Ontario conservatives, and by that, I mean all of the disparate elements that populate the big blue tent in the centre-right of the political spectrum: economic conservatives, libertarians, red Tories, social conservatives, etc.

On the one hand, at no time over the past 14 years of Liberal rule have Tory fortunes seemed better.  The conditions have scarcely been rosier in terms of their being poised to win the next provincial election, now less than 11 months away. Despite an orgy of policy announcements over the past several weeks, the Liberals remain stubbornly in second place behind the Ontario PC party, and Kathleen Wynne’s personal popularity still trails every other premier in the nation.

And yet, on the other hand, there seems to be a tremendous amount of unease in conservative circles about the party’s prospects. Many social conservatives both inside and outside the PC caucus are nothing if not upset about leader Patrick Brown’s lack of support for issues they care about — from their opposition to the Liberals updating the sex ed curriculum in Ontario schools to Brown’s willingness to march in the annual Pride Parade.

The PCs have also had one of their MPPs, Jack MacLaren, defect to the relatively new Trillium Party, saying he was fed up with the strictures Brown and Co. imposed on him.

Now, after numerous allegations of irregularities surrounding PC candidate nomination meetings, several efforts by formerly loyal conservatives  have sprung up to express their outrage at what they see as outright corruption in backroom party affairs.

One group is simply called “I’m Out,” and it’s the brain child of Ottawa conservative Carlos Naldinho. The 44-year-old law school grad says he’s spent considerable time volunteering for conservative candidates federally and provincially, and by his own count put in more than 700 hours of helping out the federal Conservative Party in the 2015 election.

Naldinho sat out the Patrick Brown vs. Christine Elliott Ontario PC leadership contest, told me he has “zero desire ever to be a candidate myself,” but has become increasingly outraged at what he sees as “outright corruption” surrounding too many PC nomination fights.

“Ottawa West-Nepean was the last straw,” Naldinho told me in a telephone interview, referring to the contest where ultimately, critics charge, there were 28 more ballots cast than people signed up to vote.

Karma Macgregor, the mother of one of Brown’s closest advisors, ended up victorious. One party vice-president quit as a result of the irregularities surrounding the vote. There have been plenty of other examples of shenanigans in other ridings, some of them documented here in a prior column.

“Patrick Brown is stacking the seats he thinks he can win with his friends,” Naldinho says. “When you’re putting an election win and the future of the party at risk because you’re trying to do favours for your friends, that’s bad.”

In his defense, Brown has always said his party’s high standing in the polls for the last two-and-a-half years has resulted in a lot of people wanting to run, and therefore the occasional shenanigans are inevitable. He’s hired PwC to oversee all future nominating meetings to ensure they’re on the up-and-up.

“He’s hired an auditor to catch the bad actors,” Naldinho acknowledges. “But he’s the bad actor.”

Yet another controversial nominating meeting was held June 26 in Scarborough Centre where the police were eventually called in to restore order.

Some party veterans think Brown’s coterie of advisers are still not ready for prime time, despite the fact the party has conducted about six dozen nominating meetings. They want the leader to replace the “thugs” (as another Tory insider critic put it) with some seasoned veterans who will run a clean process and avoid all this bad publicity.

For his part, Naldinho sees his mission now as no less than the defeat of the PC party in next June’s election, figuring a Liberal minority government would be less damaging to the province than a Tory majority headed by the current leader.

“I’m targeting ridings to undermine Brown,” Naldinho says. “I only need to get a few thousand people to stay home in key ridings to deprive the PCs of a win. This is a huge deal to me.”

Naldinho admits his effort is in the nascent stages and has only a dozen members on its informal committee. But he sees the Trillium Party potentially taking libertarian-leaning votes away from the PCs, and a soon-to-be-announced Ontario Alliance Party competing with the PCs for the social conservative vote, which feels very alienated from the leader these days.

In addition, legal efforts are underway which could prove problematic to the Ontario Tories. During the week of August 8, Vikram Singh, who came second in the Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas nomination, will argue before a judge that he was cheated out of victory by Brown’s team. He’s asking the court to appoint him as the candidate or order that a new nomination meeting be held. A second losing candidate in that race is also taking the party to court.

“I for one am going to stand up and say, 'No, this is not the  provincial conservative party that I have stood up for,’” one Conservative stalwart has confidentially emailed to those who share his concerns about the nomination process. “It's time for Patrick to discipline his thugs.”

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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