To paraphrase something often attributed to Sigmund Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But on this occasion, it isn’t.
Ask any pollster, and the first thing they’ll tell you about Patrick Brown is that the vast majority of Ontarians have no clue who the leader of the opposition is or what he stands for.
That’s both a positive and negative for Brown. It means lots of people have an open mind about the PC Party leader and haven’t already decided they don’t like him. But it also means there’s a race between his team and the governing Liberals to see who can be first to define him in the public’s mind.
Brown, as we’ve written before, aims to present himself as a modern, urban-oriented, progressive conservative in the style of former premier Bill Davis — a person just as comfortable on Bay Street as on Main Street, just as at home in downtown Toronto as in rural or northern Ontario.
Brown hasn’t sealed that deal with Ontarians yet, and so the Liberals are trying to put their own frame around him. They’d prefer voters think of him as the second coming of Mike Harris, Stephen Harper, and Tim Hudak all rolled into one — a socially conservative, budget-slashing, union-hating caricature.
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To that end, the Liberals have, on several occasions, introduced new policy initiatives designed to make Brown fit into that frame.
The most recent example is the government’s attempt to ensure safe access to abortion clinics. The policy aim seems clear enough: abortion is a legal service in Canada and has been since the late 1980s; “pro-life” demonstrators have been protesting in too close proximity to abortion clinics, harassing women who are no doubt making among the most excruciating decisions of their lives; therefore, the “pro-choice” Liberals aim to ensure a harassment-free zone for women to seek this legal service.
But the politics around this are so much more complicated. Left unsaid in the government’s introduction of this new measure is the unmistakable additional goal of laying a political trap for Patrick Brown. The Liberals know Brown has a significant pro-life contingent on his backbenches that doesn’t want to make accessing abortion services any easier than it already is. So why not introduce an abortion-related issue that may be good policy, but has the added advantage of making your opponent squirm at the same time?
If it was a trap, Brown declined to co-operate with the Liberals, by not stepping in it. He reminded his caucus that if the Tories were to have any hope of winning general election seats in Toronto (which they haven’t done in the last four campaigns), they could not afford to be framed as a party that cares only about the social conservative agenda.
So last week, the Tories not only announced they’d support the government’s bill; they also surprised the Liberals by offering to pass it immediately. Never mind two months of committee hearings, they said. This is important legislation. Let’s do it now.
The resultant sputtering from Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, who declined the offer, clearly caught Naqvi off guard, and seemed to confirm that the government’s initiative was as much about hoping Brown would step in a pile of political turd, as it was about protecting women’s health.
The Liberals tried the same thing in last spring’s budget, when they announced they’d make the “morning after” abortion pill (known as Mifegymiso here, but RU-486 in the rest of the world) free of charge. The policy change was perfectly defensible but again had the added bonus of trying to drop a social conservative stink bomb in Brown’s lap. Again, the Tories frustrated the Liberals by declining to make an issue out of it.
Last February, a government backbencher’s motion to condemn Islamophobia may have had the same goal in mind. A similar motion in Ottawa caused a huge foofaraw in the House of Commons, complete with long debates and opposition by the Conservatives who thought the motion overreached. But at Queen’s Park, the motion sailed through with unanimous support. The traps are being set, but Brown continues not to step into them.
This tactic isn’t new. Thirty-four years ago, a different Prime Minister Trudeau introduced the Canada Health Act, convinced the opposition Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney would oppose it and man the barricades for private health care. Mulroney fooled his counterpart, declined to step into the trap, and whipped his caucus into supporting the Canada Health Act. The bill passed in early 1984, depriving the Liberals of an issue to beat the Tory leader with in the ensuing election campaign. Later that year, Mulroney won the biggest majority government in Canadian history, in large part because he portrayed himself and his caucus as modern and neither extreme nor scary when it came to the public’s health.
You can’t blame the Grits for trying to trap Brown. That is part of the game of politics, after all. But you can be impressed that a rookie leader most people have never heard of has, so far, managed to avoid falling into any of those traps.