We are a year away from the election, and by most metrics, Patrick Brown is poised to become Ontario’s 26th Premier. For one, the polls show he still has a commanding lead. He’s amassed significant by-election wins in places that haven’t elected a Tory in years. The party has out-fundraised the Liberals and the New Democrats, and Brown largely erased the party’s debt by doing endless events before the end of last year. At conventions, there is a new enthusiasm and a multi-ethnic demographic that is now deeply embedded with the Ontario Tories. Brown himself has nudged toward the centre to appeal to a broad cross section of voters. On these metrics, Brown has positioned the party to a better place than it has been in years.
But that’s not the entire picture. You see, we can’t possibly have a runaway election a year away from it. Sure, Martin Regg Cohn wrote about the contrast between the PC leader and the newly minted federal Conservative leader. One, apparently, the man of conviction and steadfast values. The other lost and having not found his way. One, apparently, a conservative’s Conservative, and the other a sort of lesser conservative, as if we can definitively and conclusively come to a determination of what that means.
A former MPP once told me that the Ontario PCs were like the 12 Tribes of Israel. You’ve got the so-cons, the fiscal conservatives, the progressive conservatives, and so on. Leading this party of tribes is probably the most difficult job in politics, for if a tribe feels you’re not one of them, they pounce on you and want you to go.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a PC lead in the polls can evaporate. Sew the seeds of discord, and an implosion occurs. Approval ratings tend to tank when your own party’s supporters aren’t standing behind the leader. This is Premier Wynne’s problem right now. Supporters of her party haven’t figured out whether she’s got the stuff to lead and win. And, with time, if Brown doesn’t turn things around inside his own party, his approval ratings will start to tank, and with them, those impressive polling numbers.
This isn’t just a media conspiracy to rig the election to a closer contest. Before Cohn’s article was published, I received an E-Mail from a Paul and Deb. In their words, they are “salt of the earth parents” who love Andrew Scheer, the new federal Conservative leader, and think we have a problem with Patrick. But more tellingly, they write “many of us [read members of the tribe] are committed to working extremely diligently to encourage others to reject the Ontario PCs until we see real and sustained change within the party, change which reflects the time-tested values of decent moms and dads, rather than those of a few elites who are endeavouring to bring about radical social change which serves no one well.” You see, some people’s conservatism is just more righteous than the rest.
Then, I get an e-mail from the purportedly “Concerned PC grassroots activists for a better Ontario” who speak about the PC Leader’s inner circle in not so pleasant terms. They said, “If we don’t act now, we risk these thugs further alienating our members as well as Ontarians thinking of voting for our party; we risk allowing Wynne’s Liberals to win again and further damage our great Province.” Thugs? Luca Brasi of The Godfather would be proud. The grassroots tribe has spoken and they want action. Funny how they’re concerned about Wynne’s Liberals winning again and take the time to write an e-mail undermining the guy best positioned to deliver a defeat to her team.
Here’s the thing Brown and company need to do. First, keep the focus on the government and premier, and remind the Tribes that they are worse off with the Liberals in charge. You do this by vigorously opposing the Liberal agenda. Two, don’t’ give the Tribes reasons to rebel, because they will if given a reason. Policies and decisions that will inflame tensions should be avoided, and supporters do have legitimate concerns in this regard. Policies and decisions that address and correct Liberal shortcomings are all that should be discussed. Remember, tens of thousands of Ontarians voted for the Harris governments in the mid-1990s that haven’t bothered to vote PC since. Third, Brown needs to define himself and the party before the Liberals do. Nobody pays attention to provincial politics in between elections, so this challenge is difficult to overcome. These three things, among others, are needed to avoid the PCs bleeding off more of their tribal support to deliver Wynne another victory.
It’s worth reminding PCs that a perfect leader does not exist. While my conservatism hasn’t always been articulated by the new PCs under Patrick Brown, I sure as heck prefer a half a loaf than no loaf at all. And believe me when I say the path that Patrick has taken – one that was hard right during the leadership race and then pivoting to the centre for the general election – is a tried, tested, and true strategy for almost every successful Conservative leader we have ever seen. It wouldn’t be my strategy, but it is not “unpresidented” either.
Conservatives need to close ranks before it is too late, and that starts with the leader getting the followers on board. There isn’t time for any more fumbles. Tories shouldn’t let themselves be their own biggest threat to victory in 2018.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!