The first rips in the Progressive Conservatives’ big blue tent

By Steve Paikin - Published on August 9, 2018
Premier Doug Ford
Doug Ford has done a good — but not perfect — job of keeping all factions of the Progressive Conservative party happy. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

It’s no secret why the Progressive Conservatives have won more provincial elections than any other party since Confederation: they often manage to bring all different kinds of conservatives into one big blue tent. But when they don’t — when they disregard the importance of that balancing act — they tend to lose.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve learned a lot about what different kinds of conservatives make of Doug Ford’s new government, which has introduced plenty of changes since it took power.

Social conservatives have been heartened to see the Tories toss aside the sex-ed curriculum introduced under the previous Liberal government.

Economic conservatives have appreciated the Tories’ attempts to rein in spending and their willingness to go to court to challenge the federal government’s carbon-pricing plan.

Populist conservatives had to love that “buck-a-beer” announcement in Picton earlier this week.

Foreign-policy conservatives have cheered the government’s attempts to get more money out of Ottawa to deal with the refugee situation — but they also appreciated it when Ford stood shoulder to shoulder with the Trudeau government in opposing Donald Trump’s nonsensical tariffs, imposed because Canada allegedly represents some kind of “national-security threat” to the United States.

So you’ve got to hand it to Premier Ford — he’s done a solid job of keeping many different kinds of conservatives in his big blue tent satisfied.

Until now.

We have now seen the first rips in the tent, made by so-called democratic conservatives and red Tories — two traditionally important constituencies of the PC Party.

Red Tories are appalled that the Ford government cancelled the basic-income pilot program — despite the fact that, during the election campaign, Christine Elliott (now Ontario’s health minister and deputy premier) and PC spokesperson Melissa Lantsman confirmed that the experiment would be allowed to run its course before any decisions were made about its future.

The program, which was originally intended to last three years, allowed thousands of low-income Ontarians to sign up for a guaranteed annual income of about $17,000 for singles, or $24,000 for families. The only condition was that they had to allow their individual circumstances to be studied to see whether and in what ways their lives improved. Some conservatives believe that a basic-income program would save taxpayers’ money, since a simplified social-assistance system would require fewer civil servants to administer. It's also possible that such a program could help lower-income Ontarians lead healthier lives, which could in turn relieve some pressure on the province's overstretched health-care system.

Now, not only has the new government cancelled the program, but the minister responsible for it, Lisa MacLeod, has also denied that the cancellation constitutes a broken promise. Many red Tories now think that MacLeod looks foolish and that the government looks heartless. (The government, perhaps tacitly acknowledging that it chose to end the program too quickly, has just announced that there will be a “lengthy and compassionate runway” before the program is wound down.)

Hugh Segal, one-time chief of staff to former PC premier Bill Davis and a long-time champion of the pilot program, called the decision a “horrific mistake,” adding: “I am embarrassed, as a Progressive Conservative.”

And Segal isn’t the only one wondering what’s happened to his party. Some democratic conservatives — Tories for whom playing by the rules is among the most important political values — are unhappy with Ford’s surprise move to decrease the size of Toronto's city council and his interference with local governance in the regions of Niagara, Peel, and York and in the district of Muskoka. (The four regional governments have had their direct elections for council chair cancelled.)

“Any MPP voting for a so-called Toronto-only solution right in the middle of their municipal election is seriously playing with fire,” wrote John Casselman, a well-known PC activist, in an e-blast to his followers Wednesday.

“It sets a dangerous democratic precedent,” Casselman continued. “It puts caucus members who won by only a few hundred votes in a serious political situation. And it puts the roles of everyone else in jeopardy because winning these seats allowed us to form the [government].”

Casselman calls the current proposal to reduce Toronto city council from 47 to 25 seats “undefendable [sic] over the medium term” and adds that it’s “also causing serious political problems for conservatives at other levels of [government].”

He argues that the government should initiate a province-wide examination of all municipal councils — how big they ought to be, how much they ought to cost, and what role their police-service boards ought to play — rather than pick on a small handful of Ontario’s 444 municipalities. That would be “smart politically, and smart administratively,” he says.

Casselman has been here before. When Patrick Brown was PC leader, Casselman garnered a lot of attention inside and outside the party for calling out PC officials whom he said were ignoring the party’s own rules, running illegitimate candidate-nomination meetings, and allowing Brown’s team to put their collective thumb on the scale, giving some candidates an unfair advantage over others.

To be fair, there are conservatives in the big blue tent who are in favour of the changes being imposed on Toronto. They love the notion of smaller government, regardless of how it comes about. But just ask Brown about democratic conservatives such as Casselman. They were a pain in his butt month after month — and they never let up, because, for better or worse, these folks are just real sticklers for playing by the rules.

That’s something the current government may want to keep in mind as opposition to its decisions, so unpopular with democratic conservatives and red Tories, mounts.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that John Casselman believed municipal-governance issues should be discussed at the PC party convention in November. regrets the error.