Patrick Brown has worn many faces so far in the lead up to the election. He ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives with the support of social conservatives; he’s tried to rebrand himself and his party as more inclusive and willing to reach beyond the Tories’ existing geographical and ideological base; and with the release of the PC election platform this week, he’s trying something new — defending actual policy proposals.
He could be accused of being a changeling, willing to say anything to get anyone’s support (indeed, the Liberals said exactly that on Saturday), but the platform document released on Saturday reflects something Brown has actually been saying from the beginning.
“They’re not in it for you,” Brown told an audience in Prince Edward County in the summer of 2015. “This is a Liberal government that’s in it for themselves, in it for their friends, in it for special interests.” Brown said that a lot after first taking the leadership of his party, and other PC MPPs said much the same thing repeatedly in 2015, according to the official Queen’s Park transcripts. More recently, they began railing against “Liberal insiders,” but the sentiment is the same.
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It’s an insidious attack when it sticks, because it makes the election less about what the target proposes and more about whether they can even be trusted.
And as it turns out, Brown doesn’t really disagree with much of the Liberal platform: his own platform, unveiled this past weekend in Toronto, echoes many of its ideas. He’s promising changes to energy policy (the Tories would offer even more relief to ratepayers, 12 per cent following the 25 per cent cut the Liberals delivered this year), as well as lower taxes on middle- and low-income brackets and small businesses. He’s also promising a billion in new spending for childcare and mental health services.
But some of the biggest expansions of government spending that have happened under the Liberal party (many of which the Tories once denounced) are safe. Full-day kindergarten? Funded. Free prescription drugs for people under 25, starting January 1? Still there, still free. Cheaper college tuition? It’s in the Tory plan.
The current government’s plan for Regional Express Rail, with two-way, all-day service on the GO train network? It’s in there, all $13 billion of it. (The Tories are even saying they’ll proceed with the hydrogen train plan if Metrolinx determines it’s the only way forward.)
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Even the big departures from existing Liberal policy are effectively acknowledgements of where the Liberals are getting it right.
Take what’s likely to be one of the more controversial parts of Brown’s plan (for anyone with a 416 or 647 area code, at least): uploading the TTC’s subways to the provincial government and leaving the City of Toronto to fund the expansion of its light-rail projects. What the Tories are offering Toronto (and they stress it will be an offer, not an edict from Queen’s Park) is the status quo with the Eglinton Crosstown, the major LRT project currently tunnelling across the city’s middle. The province would own the physical structure of the TTC’s subway tunnels and pay for maintenance, while the city would pay for operations and keep the farebox revenue.
The city will determine whether this is a deal worth taking — Toronto is still angry that the province doesn’t help pay for operating costs, and this deal wouldn’t remedy that — but it’s amusing that one of the bigger changes the Tories envision uses many of the tools the Liberals have spent their 14 years in power developing. The Tories once railed against government agencies like Infrastructure Ontario and Metrolinx, but those agencies are exactly the ones a government led by Brown would rely on to deliver new subways in the GTA.
Perhaps the Tories have finally hit on something. People are angry about Liberal waste and mismanagement ($1 billion gas plants here, bungled highway contracts there), but they’re mostly pretty happy with the expansion of the public sector under the Liberals. The Tories, who’ve tried offering Ontarians an alternative vision of a leaner government and ended up losing elections, are now offering them one that does even more (for example, restoring the Northlander train the Liberals cancelled in 2012), but promising to do it honestly.
What’s most surprising about this new approach is seeing a Tory leader challenge Kathleen Wynne for the earnestness vote. Brown, in his convention speech, spoke at length about why he entered public life, saying, “I view public service as the ability to better your community.” He mentioned wanting to make things better for people like the kids in Barrie who didn’t have a rec centre when he was a city councillor. Swap “city councillor” for “school trustee,” and it was exactly the type of speech reporters have seen Wynne herself give repeatedly since even before she became premier.
If you’re one of the disgruntled Tory members who expected a PC leader to march to victory promising a hard-right agenda for the province, all of this is a nightmare. If you’re a New Democrat, it might be an opportunity to truly distinguish your party from the two battling for the centre.
In any case, the election is still more than six months away, and the Liberals might still win on June 7. For now, they’re responding to the PC conference as if the actual content of Brown’s plan didn’t matter, calling out his record in federal politics and reminding voters about former Premier Mike Harris with every second sentence. Hey, it’s worked for them before.
But if Brown is victorious on election night, the Liberals will at least get to console themselves with the fact that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.