National Column: Patrick Brown lone Red Tory in PC leadership melodrama

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by Thomas Walkom

Ontario’s bizarre Progressive Conservative melodrama has entered a new phase of absurdity.

Former leader Patrick Brown is considered too disreputable to sit in the Legislature as a Conservative. But he is apparently reputable enough to be the party’s leader again.

He’s also the only candidate vying for the leadership who is running as a Red Tory. That’s important because the Red Tory blend of sound economic management and moderately progressive social policy is usually the formula for political success in Ontario – for any party.

The Brown on-again-off-again leadership story is not the oddest in Canadian history. That honour still belongs to Joe Clark, who famously quit as federal Tory leader in 1983 because he didn’t think the 67-per-cent support he gleaned from party delegates in a review vote was enough. (Clark then ran for his old job and lost to a political neophyte named Brian Mulroney.)

Still, the Brown saga is odd enough. It began last month when CTV aired claims from two anonymous young women that Brown had initiated sexual contact with them.

Neither charged assault. And CTV later retracted its initial claim that one of the women was a high school student under the age of 19.

But it was enough to spook the party. Brown, who has denied any wrongdoing, was effectively forced to resign as leader.

His caucus wouldn’t back him. Even his senior staff quit en masse.

Brown would later call this a coup. And in some ways, that’s what it was. Brown had never been popular with the party establishment. An outsider, he won the leadership in 2015 by pandering to the party’s social conservative wing on issues like sex education.

But after winning, he abandoned his former allies and veered to the centre.

All of which is to say that when he found himself in trouble, he didn’t have many keen supporters.

The party also had to calculate the political cost of replacing a leader so close to the June 7 general election. If, as the polls suggest, Ontarians are overwhelmingly sick of Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, then it might not matter who the Tories put up to oppose her.

In that case, there would be no political cost to replacing Brown. More to the point, there would be no political cost to ditching Brown’s carefully calibrated Red Tory platform – a platform designed to keep many of Wynne’s more popular reforms in place, while positioning the PCs as better fiscal managers.

Thus, all candidates except Brown have abandoned plans for a carbon tax to address climate change. As well, all except Brown and political newcomer Caroline Mulroney have pledged to reopen the sex education debate.

Except for Brown, none has ruled out changing other parts of the so-called “People’s Guarantee” platform.

Now that Brown has decided to fight for his old job, his critics are getting harsher. Interim leader Vic Fedeli has kicked him out of the Tory caucus. Tory MPP Randy Hillier has filed a complaint about him with the province’s integrity commissioner.

The Globe and Mail published a complicated story asking whether Brown had entered into a financial arrangement with someone seeking a Tory nomination (the answer apparently was no).

Political operatives, irked that he hasn’t quietly gone away, accuse him of putting his own interests before those of the party – a charge that could be levelled at any politician trying to rock the boat.

When a 23-year-old girlfriend publicly supported him, Brown, 39, was criticized for dating younger women. That’s an accusation that Brian Mulroney, who was 34 when he married 19-year-old Mila Pivnicki, never faced. Nor did Pierre Trudeau when he married a young woman almost 30 years his junior.

Still, who knows? Maybe Brown is a rouÈ and a bounder.

But right now he is also the only Red Tory in this race. If on June 7, Ontario voters look beyond the question of how much they dislike Wynne, that might just matter.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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