Progressive Conservative nomination controversies reveal the dark side of leading in the polls

By Steve Paikin - Published on May 18, 2017
Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown
The Progressive Conservatives are very popular in anticipation of next year's election, which brings its own challenges. (Peter Power/CP)

Normally in politics, it’s a wonderful thing when the polls tell you you’ve got a double-digit lead over the party whose government you want to defeat in the next election.

But there is at least one downside to that statistical reality. It means that a lot of people think you’re likely to form the next government, and therefore a great many would-be politicians coming out of the woodwork to fight for nominations. That makes for intra-party battles that can get acrimonious, and even publicly embarrassing.

Such is the predicament Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown finds himself in today. Unlike the run-up to some past elections, in which the Tories had no hope of winning and therefore had a devil of a time finding candidates, the party is in a very different position now. The PCs have been ahead of the Liberals in Forum Research’s polling for going on more than two years, and as a result, there are increasing numbers of people who are desperate to win a PC nomination, figuring it’s a safe road to becoming an MPP when the votes are counted on June 7, 2018.

One upshot, according to media reports and several active party members, is that the irregularities at PC nominating meetings have increased at such an alarming rate that Brown has appointed auditing firm PwC to oversee the process going forward. That has given little comfort to one would-be candidate’s campaign manager, who described the decision as “a joke," and went on to say "These guys have no expertise in nomination races. They even screwed up the Oscars.”

One of the latest irregularities took place at the recent nominating meeting for the riding of Richmond Hill.  Brian McLean, 58, needs a wheelchair to get around because he suffered a spinal cord injury diving three decades ago. When he arrived at the Toronto Montessori School on Bayview Avenue at Highway 407 to vote, he discovered the meeting was being held in the auditorium, down three flights of stairs. There was no way for him to gain access to the auditorium to listen to the candidates’ speeches and then vote.

So he didn’t, and now he’s furious.

“I was not provided an environment fairly like everyone else,” he told me in a phone conversation on Thursday. “I was denied the right to vote or even to hear the speeches. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 12 for being denied. It’s just not right.”

McLean purchased his $10 membership to the PC Party to enable him to participate in the democratic process, but in the end, he was left embittered and feeling disrespected.

“I’d still like to see the PC Party allow me to vote somehow,” he says, “but I’ve had no contact from anyone from the party.”

Big deal, you say. So one person didn’t get to vote.  Beyond the basic rights McLean feels he was denied, the additional problem was, the contest was so tight, the final count showed a tie. The riding association president broke the tie, deciding in favour of candidate Daisy Wai. McLean says he would have marked his “X” for the other finalist, Lara Coombs. Had McLean been able to vote, Coombs would have won. In fact, at the post-meeting get-together of the Coombs team at a local restaurant, campaign staffers began chanting “Let Brian Vote! Let Brian Vote!”

McLean’s inability to vote isn’t just a matter of equity, in other words: it would have changed the outcome of the nomination in that riding.

Coombs’ officials intend to appeal the results to the party’s executive committee, saying McLean’s human rights were violated. But in the short run, since it’s the executive committee that oversees the nominations process, it’s unclear whether those complaints will get a fair or timely hearing. And at the moment, the party has signed off on the result.

Then there’s the issue with Ottawa West-Nepean. There were allegedly 28 more ballots in the voting boxes than people registered to vote that day. Accusations of ballot box stuffing have been investigated by the party and dismissed. But that has not stopped the losing candidate, Jeremy Roberts, from launching an appeal.

Brown has characterized all this as a good problem to have. The numbers of people interested in winning a PC nomination stands in contrast to the state of affairs with the Liberals, who delayed holding a by-election in the vacant Sault Ste. Marie riding for the longest time, because they were unable to get anyone to come forward to contest the seat — a riding it's held since 2003.

But some question whether Brown’s public statements about staying neutral on these nomination fights can be taken at face value. These concerns have led Brown to issue orders to his staff to stay away from future nomination meetings, to avoid the appearance that Brown favors one candidate over another, according to some Tories I’ve spoken to. That may satisfy future nomination battles, but critics are concerned about the 62 that have already taken place, without these caveats in place.

Brown told the Toronto Star that there were three nomination meetings this past weekend, all monitored by PwC, and he’s “heard no complaints.” But given what I was told happened in Richmond Hill, he will be.

Why would the general public care about internal PC Party machinations? As one disgruntled participant in the nomination process told me: “How you govern a party is how you’re likely to govern the province.” 

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