In 35 years of covering Queen’s Park, I have never seen a night like last night. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s ever been a night like last night in 150 years of Ontario political history.
Pick your metaphor: A tsunami? An earthquake? A hurricane? All of the above?
I have seen scandals that rocked governments to their core, causing ministerial resignations, public inquiries, and lost reputations.
But I have never seen anything like this.
One of the amazing things about the people who make a living in the political world is how breathtakingly quickly they move on. They have to. With Patrick Brown now out as Progressive Conservative leader, the people who make up the party are already thinking about his replacement.
They have to.
With an election less than five months away, they owe it to Ontarians to ensure that they have a competent, capable person in place to offer a Tory alternative to the current government.
And so, the PC caucus and membership are already blasting potential names through cyberspace, in hopes of sorting through an unprecedented situation.
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Here’s what the standard political playbook calls for: whenever an unpopular or troubled leader leaves, the replacement has to be the exact opposite, to convince the public that the party has genuinely turned the page. It almost always seems to happen that way. When the urban, male, experienced David Peterson lost the premiership in 1990, the Liberals replaced him with a rookie northern woman in Lyn McLeod. When the intellectual oratory of Toronto’s Bob Rae left the political scene in 1996, New Democrats went for a brash, hockey-playing northerner named Howard Hampton. And when Hampton left, they picked Andrea Horwath, an urban woman, to replace him. The Tories have done this too, going in 1985 from older WASP Muskokan Frank Miller to younger Jewish Torontonian Larry Grossman, and then after his loss, back to a tough northerner in 1990 in Mike Harris. That is what the playbook requires.
Patrick Brown is confronting disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct. He was somewhat charismatically challenged, not a great speaker, and scored poorly with women in the polls. He was an unmarried and childless lifelong politician, having been elected for the first time in his early 20s.
The playbook suggests the new leader should, therefore, be a married woman with children, with a squeaky-clean reputation for probity, have some (but not too much) charisma, have some (but not too much) political experience, and be a fresh face.
Who fits that description? That person on my scorecard is Caroline Mulroney, who checks every single one of those boxes.
The obvious drawback to Mulroney is that she’s only a nominated candidate — she’s not an MPP. However, she’s running in one of the safest Tory seats in the province. She’ll win it and therefore will be a member soon enough. She also presents a dramatic contrast to the current premier of Ontario, who is of an older generation, and whose party is pushing up against 15 years in office.
One last thing: Brown’s political career, at least for the moment, is over. While he plans to stay on as an MPP, his presence on the PC Party ticket can only serve as a distraction during the 2018 election campaign. So there will be enormous pressure on him to stand down as a candidate and not seek re-election in June.
Some conservatives will note that he took his party from 12,000 members to more than 200,000. He made today’s PC Party a player in multicultural communities. He made it more LGBTQ-positive. He stared down social conservatives and climate-change deniers. He erased the deficit and filled his party’s coffers with money it needs to mount a competitive campaign against the deeply unpopular Liberals.
But as they say, politics ain’t beanbag — and Brown will learn this in spades over the coming weeks. Nearly all the people who sang his praises and championed his efforts will disappear — not only because they’ll have to focus on the upcoming election, but also because the allegations against Brown are profoundly disturbing. And while those allegations have not been proven in court, it’s incumbent upon all politicians, all parties, and all Ontarians to take them — and the women who’ve come forward — seriously.