TORONTO—Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are riding high above the unpopular governing Liberals in the polls, but internal party divisions could distract from that momentum one year away from the next election.
Party leader Patrick Brown is up against a premier with historically low approval ratings—nearing single digits—but even if he can conquer the hurdles of opposition within the party to his carbon tax policy, alienated social conservatives and messy nomination battles, the question remains for many people in the broader electorate: Patrick Who?
Several recent polls have shown that the Tories are tracking well ahead of the Liberals, and the party is celebrating momentum from a byelection win in the riding of Sault Ste. Marie, a seat they hadn’t held since 1985. But polls also suggest half of Ontarians either don’t know who Brown is or don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
The Tories have unveiled a series of ads in an effort to change that, showing Brown marching in Toronto’s Pride parade, rallying in support of autistic children and talking to workers in hard hats. One ad reveals that he used to struggle with a severe speech impediment.
Brown believes the key to voters getting to know him is connecting with them one on one.
“I try to go to 15, 20 events a weekend, try to go to events every evening, telling our story about who I am, why I’m in politics, why I believe we can turn things around for Ontario,” he said in a recent interview.
Former Tory politician Peter Shurman said Brown was known as a social conservative when he was an MP in the Stephen Harper government, but found that wouldn’t be a path to victory provincially.
“I think that he is legitimately a Conservative thinker, but I think that he has had problems defining what that means on a provincial level,” Shurman said.
Brown didn’t shed his social conservative leanings immediately upon jumping to provincial politics. Social conservatives claim their support helped him win the party leadership in 2015, after he told them—in private—he would repeal the Liberals’ sex-ed curriculum.
But when his staff sent around a letter saying as much during a byelection last year and it was reported on, he disavowed it, changed his stance and told social conservatives their activism wasn’t welcome in his party.
“I mean it when I say everyone is welcome in this party no matter who you love, where you’re born, what the colour of your skin is, what faith you have, what language you speak,” Brown said in the recent interview.
“If you want to be in the party on the basis you want to exclude another group, that’s not on for me.”
The party still includes a social conservative presence, including a 19-year-old anti-abortion caucus member, but some have said good riddance. Anti-sex-ed advocates formed their own party to run in November byelections and the party lost controversial caucus member Jack MacLaren to a fringe party that believes the Liberal sex-ed curriculum, which includes discussions on same-sex marriage and gender identity, is a form of “social engineering.”
Brown recently kicked MacLaren out of caucus—MacLaren says the party found out he was already leaving—and he is now a member of the Trillium party, whose other main plank is opposing a carbon tax. Brown has advocated for a carbon tax that is offset by other tax relief to make it “revenue neutral” in place of the current cap-and-trade system.
MacLaren said it was one of the main reasons he left the Tories.
“I would never support a carbon tax,” he said. “The majority of Ontarians don’t support a carbon tax. The majority of the PCs do not support a carbon tax.”
It is an unpopular policy within the base, but Brown is unapologetic.
“I believe climate change is man made and it’s serious and it’s a threat we need to respond to,” he said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent with conservatism to care about the environment.”
McMaster University political science professor Henry Jacek doesn’t see a carbon tax siphoning off too many Tory votes.
“His base may dislike it, but I think…they dislike the premier even more,” he said.
In general, Brown has been hesitant to unveil too much policy ahead of the party’s convention in November, emphasizing a grassroots policy development instead of a top-down approach that previously brought such campaign promises as cutting 100,000 public sector jobs—largely thought to have cost them the 2014 election.
But another grassroots approach is causing problems within the party. Brown has said the battles to secure party nominations to run in the June 2018 election will be open, and cites the contested nature of the nominations as evidence of party momentum. But several nominations have been tarnished by accusations of ballot stuffing and meddling by the party brass.
Shurman said it’s one of the issues he hears about frequently from friends who are active within the party.
“They’re saying…’this is ridiculous,”’ Shurman said. “You’ve got Patrick and his people fighting a battle about who’s winding up the nominee in some ridings. You’ve got people saying, ‘I’m a social conservative and I don’t see one in him’ and you’ve got people who are more moderate saying, ‘He supports a carbon what?”’