Remember when you were taught that conservatives aren’t exactly enthusiastic for changing their ways? Well, that notion is gone. Patrick Brown spent the weekend in Ottawa completely overhauling the Ontario PC party, and he’s asking party members to join him and follow his message. And that message, boy, that message is dramatically different than anything the party has ever seen. The party’s leader, its logo, its organization, its message are all completely rebuilt, and this concept of a “new” party, which was stated over and over again, is pretty much what is left.
Let’s start with the convention slogan All.in. I tried to figure out what it all meant. Was it, as a keen Twitter follower mentioned, taking the title of David Petraeus’ biography? I thought it could have had some sports connection, as his leadership slogan “For the Win” did. I saw campaign signs for Jeb! that said “All in for Jeb!” Could it be? Pinball Clemons definitely sold me on the ‘we’re all in this together’ theme. Last, I thought it could have been related to poker. All in, put all your chips in the middle and see if you get called or people fold. I thought poker would have been the odd choice for a convention two years from an election, but by the end of Saturday night, I kind of feel like that’s where it’s at.
Nobody can leave this weekend’s convention thinking that Patrick Brown is purposefully keeping it bland and waiting for the Liberals to implode. The extent of this course correction is the most dramatic thing I’ve seen since the party’s platform implosion in 2014, if not ever. The complete overhaul has left virtually no vestiges of the past. This is bold stuff, fraught with risk, and it gives Ontarians their first glimpse of what they might expect. To have an Ontario PC leader court organized labour, embrace diversity, and calling for carbon pricing, WOW!!! It wasn’t until that last piece came in at the end of the night that “All In” seemed to be about poker after all — putting the chips in the middle in an all or nothing proposition. And, to members, Brown is saying you’re either in or you must fold. Dramatic stuff for it to be happening 2 years and 3 months from an election without a platform to be speaking from in a unified way.
People have been asking me about what I think. Here it is: the PC team deserves high praise for the reset. It was needed. The old brand didn’t win, so we need something new. And, I believe it’s necessary to have Patrick and the party set out what will define this party going forward and what message of hope we plan to bring to Ontarians. All that started this weekend. Nobody is ever completely pleased about the final product. We are Tories after all, but this process has been moving through, and the party is working hard. I may soon write more about carbon pricing. Before Tories dismiss the idea (and my inbox is full of examples of people dismissing it), let me just say this: would you be OK with taxing something we don’t need more of (like carbon) and eliminating taxes on something we want to see grow (like wages/income)? You see where I’m going, I hope.
Nevertheless, a few cautionary notes need to be addressed. First, an election is about contrast. It’s not apparent to me after this reset whether we care about being an alternative that is capable of fixing what is wrong with Ontario. If we are all saying the same thing as the other parties, then this becomes a competition on personality and leadership. Tories may win on that question today, but it remains to be seen what the plan is to sustain that advantage.
Second, which is actually related to the first, is this question of how to keep the base of the party happy. There is an assumption now that the base is bigger, larger, broader, than it was in the past. Fine, but here is the trouble: when Hudak’s leadership approval ratings were low, they were low because PC supporters never warmed to him. If you look at every party leader, they could always count on a robust portion of their voters who support their leader with a minority of supporters of other parties saying a leader is doing well . That didn’t happen with Hudak toward the end. The point is that if the base becomes dissatisfied with the leader, it’ll hurt leadership approval ratings, and make the ‘leadership advantage’ an entirely risky business.
Third, the right flank of the spectrum is completely wide open. Rather than winning by taking the strong party base, appeal to ethnic voters and soften the message, there will be ‘no stone left unturned’ and the Tories are going to compete for every vote. If the opinion is that the right wing of the party, fiscal and/or social conservative, have no other choice but to vote PC, it’s not that simple. They could stay home or they could create another vehicle to channel their frustrations. The caution here isn’t that it will happen… I’m just saying that these folks cannot be ignored and you wouldn’t want it to happen.
Fourth, there will be no shortage of punditry that will praise or lament the demise of small c conservatism. The journalists and columnists will be lining up to talk about this, which tends to happen when you take a stance. The change is so dramatic that it is newsworthy. Don’t be surprised that people who criticized the party for being hard right are going to criticize the newest incarnation. Don’t be surprised if a poll comes out in the next few days, and whatever it shows (up or down), it will be linked to what’s happening. Those numbers don’t matter, but they will make news too.
Fifth, everyone assumes that since the leader announced a “carbon pricing” direction, it will find its way into the platform. It seems kind of a strange that delegates were asked to be ‘all in’ on everything changing, including (some may say especially) given the massive grassroots policy process launched on the weekend, and then have the leader come in and say that climate change is man made, it’s destructive, that we cannot grow the economy without addressing it, and that we need to put a price on carbon. We were asked to go all in without being able to look at our own cards essentially. It’s probably fair to say that this is going to disturb a great number of delegates this weekend who are hopeful about the process and who are hopeful that some of their diverging views from the leadership may be heard with the party brass listening intently.
The last cautionary note I’ll say is that the caucus meeting on Tuesday will be the first place to get people’s reaction on this new direction. If past is prologue, anytime something bold is initiated by the party, the caucus members are going to hear about it and they’ll speak about it starting on Tuesday. This is a caucus, mind you, that got elected with the old brand and the strength of their personal brand. Their opinions ought not to be dismissed. Not dealing with their concerns could lead to a caucus that continues to be jittery when they feel their supporters are most put off by the new direction. There will undoubtedly be caucus members who aren’t entirely comfortable with the new direction to begin with, so some of this could become be a lingering issue.
Will it work? Nobody can predict it. As with any strategy, including the strategy leading up to the last election, it is built based on the information that is available and often that information is incomplete. We’ll figure out whether it’ll work after the next election. What we do know is that the march for 2018 has begun, whether you’re all in or you fold.