Patrick Brown deserves tough questions. Why did the Liberals give him such an easy one?

OPINION: The Liberals’ recent, futile attempt to tie the Tory leader to The Rebel is dumb politics, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on August 22, 2017
Ontario Conservative Leader Patrick Brown in a media scrum
Last weekend, the Liberals tried unsuccessfully to tie Patrick Brown to the far-right website The Rebel. (Fred Lum/CP)

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The thing is, political attacks are supposed to make life harder for your opponents, not easier. Maybe someone should tell the Ontario Liberals?

This past weekend, the party’s Twitter account reminded voters that Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown had been an occasional guest on The Rebel, the far-right website currently embroiled in infighting and recriminations but once known primarily for its rancid Islamophobia, which included suggesting the murders of six men at a Quebec City mosque earlier this year were faked.

Plenty of conservatives have abandoned or disavowed The Rebel since one of its contributors appeared on a far-right white supremacist podcast, and someone at Liberal HQ was either bored on a Saturday or thought it’d be worth trying to tie Brown to them.

So yes, Brown appeared on The Rebel, most recently more than a year ago to talk about the Liberal party’s fundraising scandal — funny, the topic of discussion didn’t fit into all those tweets — that was so tawdry and indefensible the Liberals were shamed into changing provincial election law. That’s on the public record, and voters are totally within their rights to consider that information and its context when they go to the ballot box next year.

But anyone familiar with relations between Brown and The Rebel over the past year knows things have soured badly and seem unlikely to recover. The website has chastised Brown for being a “fake conservative” who’s gone “full Trudeau” in advocating a revenue-neutral carbon tax to replace the Liberals’ cap-and-trade system. Rebel contributors have also made dark insinuations about Muslims infiltrating PC nomination races under Brown’s watch.

No wonder, then, that Brown was able to easily clear the low bar the Liberals had set for him, tweeting, “I deplore intolerance of any kind and in any place, including Rebel. That's why they thoroughly detest me!”

The whole point of the “make X disavow Y” play is to put your enemy between a rock and a hard place. The Liberals put Brown between a pillow and meringue.

All this would be a silly diversion, except for the missed opportunity it represents. Brown has a better chance of being Ontario’s next premier than the last three PC leaders did, and he’s managed to get there without offering much in the way of serious policy.

There was a welcome exception to that last week in Ottawa, where Brown told the Association of Municipalities of Ontario that, should his party form the next government, it would reform the province’s legal liability rules. Mayors and councils have complained for years that, when it comes to doling out damages, courts treat municipal taxpayers like bottomless wallets. Brown promised a Tory government would change the rules to save money, lower insurance premiums for municipalities, and avoid tax increases.

It sounds neat and tidy, but it isn’t: there’s still the basic question of who should pay for court-ordered damages, which are calculated based on real harms to real people. Courts struggle to put dollar figures on people’s lives — especially lives that’ve been irreparably damaged. The biggest payouts are often for young people who’ve been paralyzed or otherwise disabled in car accidents. How much to award a 17-year-old who’s going to need 60 or 70 years of care?

Municipalities probably aren’t the best suited to bear such damages, but there’s also no free lunch: either some other level of government takes the hit, or the province caps the amount of money courts can recover from city councils — which would save taxpayers money at the risk of injured people going without.

It’s a difficult and multifaceted policy issue that deserves a serious, detailed answer. So far, the Tories have promised wide-ranging consultations and that whatever solution they land on will save money. And… that’s it.

At this point, the governing party (with one eye on next year’s polls) would be expected to point out the empty shell of a policy the Leader of the Opposition is trying to get away with, and then lambaste him for being unprepared to lead This Great Province.

Except, whoops, the Liberals also promised to address liability rules once upon a time (2014), and then broke that promise, making them a less than perfect messenger for such an attack.

Patrick Brown, like any other leader of a major political party that could form Ontario’s next government, needs to be seriously challenged before the next election. Cute games on Twitter aren’t going to cut it.

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