BLUE SKIES – Ontario’s Tories are feeling pretty good right now, basking in the positive energy from last weekend’s policy conference. Up until then their optimism stemmed mostly from the continuing unpopularity of Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals; now the PCs have a platform of their own they believe will resonate with voters regardless of what the Liberals do. There’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong, of course, and the spectre of having blown several elections they thought were winnable still looms over the party. But by almost all accounts delegates left the convention feeling triumphant. Some observations:
“Buzz” was a word on many lips over the weekend and since, as delegates reported a sense of genuine enthusiasm many Ontario Tories haven’t felt in this millennium. Adding to the upbeat vibe was a crowd younger and more diverse than a stereotypical conservative gathering – again fuelling hope that the party’s reach is extending beyond its traditional core.
Party Leader Patrick Brown delivered a relaxed, confident performance during his keynote speech – a bit stiff at first, but more assured as he got comfortable – assuaging doubts about his ability to connect with an audience. A friendly audience, that is – the big question now is whether he can be similarly engaging with the neutral and sometimes hostile audiences he will face on the campaign trail. (In the near future, Brown will be in front of mostly supportive faces. Right after the convention he hit the road for a province-wide tour, reportedly on the same customized bus his ex-boss, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper,used in the 2011 federal election but now emblazoned with Brown’s picture and platform logo.)
Central to Brown’s speech was the unveiling of the PC platform which, if nothing else, certainly looks different from any platform document that’s come before. Dubbed People’s Guarantee, it’s designed to resemble a consumer lifestyle magazine – with catchy, multiple-font headlines and heavy visual content for about 30 pages. The other 40-odd pages are called “the fine print” and go into more detail.
All in, the platform outlines some 147 promises, including pledges to cut middle-class income taxes, trim another 12% off hydro bills, upload Toronto’s subways to the province, invest $1.9 million in mental health care and impose a moratorium on school closures. Wrapping it up with a flourish is the “guarantee” itself, that if Brown doesn’t keep his key promises in his first term he will not seek a second – a declaration he signed on the stage as part of his convention speech, in what observers said was a cheesy but effective bit of drama.
What the platform isn’t is a conservative manifesto. Brown and his strategists have obviously calculated that the voter mood is a desire for fresh blood, not radical change, and none of the People’s Guarantee promises would sound odd coming from the Liberals – or the NDP for that matter. Chatter over the weekend was peppered with references to former Premier BillDavis, whose moderate approach has become the stuff of Tory legend. Right-leaning pundits duly expressed their dismay, but Brown has served notice that he’s prepared to forego the support of the hard right to cultivate the vastly larger political middle – a space that appears open for the taking with Wynne’s Liberals seemingly bent on outflanking the NDP on the left.
Time will tell whether Brown’s vision will truly resonate with the electorate, but for now he has indisputably succeeded in driving Ontario’s political agenda. His platform launch generated an avalanche of media coverage and commentary. Postmedia columnist Chris Selley captured the general sentiment, writing, “It might not be especially conservative vision, but it is a vision – a different vision, a mostly defensible vision, a positive and upbeat vision despite its swipes at the Liberals, and a vision the Liberals will have some trouble trying to attack without looking foolish.”
RED FLAGS – Foolish or not, the Liberals quickly set about trying to rain on Brown’s parade. Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca was first up, attending the PC policy conference in person and heaping scorn on Brown’s effort to take the moral high ground. Pointing to a police investigation around a Hamilton-area PC nomination, Del Duca sniped that it’s “sadly ironic and, frankly, disrespectful of the people of Ontario [for Brown] to claim to be some kind of paragon of virtue … Patrick Brown, by his behaviour, is making it abundantly clear where he truly stands on accountability and it’s not on the right side of the ledger.” Del Duca also predictably drew comparisons to Conservative icons, Harper and former Premier Mike Harris, offering, “Ontario has seen this movie before … and everyone knows the sequel is always worse than the original.” (Given Brown’s push to the political centre, that association fell pretty flat.) By Monday, the LIBs had shifted to criticism of Brown’s plan for funding his promised goodies – primarily carbon taxes and the savings to be found in a value-for-money audit aimed at reducing 2% of costs across government. Finance Minister Charles Sousa opined, “Page 76 of their plan made it very clear: over $12 billion is what’s being cut across the board to the people of Ontario. So the question becomes, what are you going to cut?” Later in the week Wynne herself chimed in: “‘Efficiencies’ – that’s the language that they use, and in my experience, ‘efficiencies’ has always been code for ‘cuts’ for Conservatives.” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath took a similar tack, although she cited a “$6 billion hole” in the costing, and drew a comparison to former PC Leader Tim Hudak. “[Brown] is not telling people what he’s going to cut. That’s very concerning. In that plan, there’s an allusion to what Tim Hudak said he was going to do in terms of cutting … [100,000] staff from the public service,” Horwath said. She also lumped the Tories in with the Liberals on the electricity file – aiming to differentiate her party by sniping that the Tories will “continue the disastrous Liberal hydro plan if they win next year.”
STRANGER THINGS– Despite riding a wave of good news following the release of the PC platform, Brown just can’t shake problems and controversies with the party’s nominations process. While a court trial is pending in the Hamilton area, what had seemed like a fairly simple nomination process in Niagara Falls has taken a U-turn. With a nomination meeting set for Dec. 12, local party members had been seemingly set to decide between former Olympic boxer Mike Strange – currently a Niagara Falls City Councillor — and the former head of the local home builders’ association Chuck McShane. But mere hours before the set deadline for nominations was to expire, the PC Party kicked Strange out of the race following an investigation into his social media activity. That investigation was triggered when an anonymous source dropped off unmarked envelopes to Strange and the party containing a stack of reputation-damaging photos (of Strange partying at the bar he used to own, posing with controversial late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and fraternizing with local Liberals and New Demorats) and the script of a CBC story regarding a 2001 DUI charge for which Strange was ultimately acquitted. Dubbed a “smear campaign” by Strange, the effort achieved its apparent objective by getting him out of the running. Party brass had encouraged Strange to step down on his own, but when said he wasn’t quitting, the decision was taken out of his hands. “I guess I didn’t realize party politics is this dirty,” Strange told the St. Catharines Standard, adding that he is tearing up his party membership.
COMM TOGETHER – Much has been made of the loss of talent in the Liberal staffing ranks – partly through regular turnover, to Ottawa after the Liberals took power federally and some bailing out ahead of what looks to be a daunting re-election slog. But Wynne has succeeded in luring some strong communications professionals to Queen’s Park. Recent hires include Ashley Csanady, a former National Post reporter, web producer and Sirius XM radio host, who joins Wynne’s office as a senior writer. Also (back) on board is Lloyd Rang, a former senior communications staffer for then-Premier Dalton McGuinty (who is reportedly responsible for all the dad jokes in McGuinty’s speeches). Rang is coming back as Director of Communications on the Economic Development and Growth file for minister Brad Duguid.
IN THE HOUSE
No new government legislation was introduced this week.
Of the eight government bills still on the Order Paper, half are now at Third Reading. They, and likely two to three others, are expected to pass before the House rises for its winter break in two weeks.
FOR THE RECORD
“It’s a huge concern for Ontarians. It’s a big loss for communities. Those community papers, those dailies in lots of cases, were the glue that held communities together.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, lamenting the shut-down of dozens of local newspapers and exhorting the provincial and federal governments to find a way to save the industry.
“You don’t need an image consultant when you have very active sisters and a mother in your life.”
PC Leader Patrick Brown on his new hairstyle, abandoning the slicked-back style for a more conventional look.
“They don’t make politicians like Ann Sloat anymore. Tough, but kind hearted. Crafty, but fair. Unstudied, but a demon for homework.”
Hamilton Spectatorcolumnist Andrew Dreschel, eulogizing former Ancaster Mayor Ann Sloat, who passed away last week at age 89. While Sloat was best know as a municipal politician, she had the distinction of having won a provincial seat but never taking it in the Legislature. She won a by-election in December 1984 and was sworn in as MPP for Wentworth North, but the Legislature didn’t convene before she was defeated in the general election six months later.
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