BLUE BLOOD – Early on, interim PC Leader Vic Fedeli called it a “roller coaster.” That now seems quaint, as the party lurches through what has become an existential odyssey. Fallout from last week’s spectacularly sudden resignation of former leader Patrick Brown continues to utterly swamp Queen’s Park discourse, with each day bringing new curves – and a giant Who Knows? about what it will all mean to the party’s election fortunes. To recap just some of the plot twists since Brown’s public flameout:
It took nearly a week for the party to settle on rules for how a successor to Brown will be chosen, finally landing on March 10 as the date for a new leader to be crowned, preceded by seven days of online voting. This decision followed many a fraught meeting of party big-wigs, facing a bitter divide over whether there should be a leadership contest at all just months before a general election.
In the immediate aftermath of Brown stepping down, the 28-member caucus (well, 29 if you include Brown, but he’s persona non grata at the moment) had moved swiftly to choose Fedeli as Leader – wanting him to carry that title through to June’s election.
Not so fast, said the party executive, insisting on a formal leadership race and plopping “interim” in front of Fedeli’s title. A couple of dozen nominated PC candidates – among them Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips, star candidates long rumoured to have leadership aspirations – advocated for this decision, signing a letter calling for the party-wide selection process. Thus appeared the first crack in party solidarity.
Crack #2 – more like a crevasse – came with the announcement by bombastic former Toronto Councillor Doug Ford that he will run for the leadership. There isn’t a more polarizing figure this side of Donald Trump, and Ford’s presence in the race signalled a fight for the soul of the party. As one wag put it, the battle between centrist and right-wing forces amounts to “Red Tories” versus “Red Meat Tories.”
Ford’s candidacy will no doubt trigger an ABF – Anybody But Ford – movement, with opponents aiming to coalesce around a single candidate to defeat him.
Fedeli, who had insisted he wanted the job permanently, abruptly pulled out of the nascent leadership race on Tuesday, vowing to focus instead on cleaning up the mess the party finds itself in – to, in his words, “root out the rot.”
Within hours of Fedeli’s announcement, other MPPs who had reportedly been mulling a leadership bid also passed, including Lisa MacLeod and Monte McNaughton.
The rapid-fire bow-outs from sitting MPPs led to speculation of a backroom agreement to unanimously support someone else (see ABF, above). That someone could well be Christine Elliott, the former MPP who lost the leadership to Brown in 2015 and has since been appointed as Ontario’s first Patient Ombudsman. With an “I’m in!” tweet, Elliott took the plunge – reportedly after much cajoling – and is expected to be the darling of those who wanted Fedeli to move ahead unopposed. This will be her third shot at the leadership: Besides being runner-up to Brown in 2015, she came in third in the race in 2009, behind Tim Hudak and Frank Klees.
Mulroney is expected to officially launch her campaign early next week, as is Phillips, creating a four-way race – featuring three candidates with no provincial experience (only Elliott has sat in the Legislature), two who have never been elected at all (Mulroney and Phillips), and two who will have to find a riding to run in (Elliott’s old Whitby-Oshawa seat is now held by PC MPP Lorne Coe; Ford had been planning to run for mayor again).
There is still a possibility of a current caucus member jumping in. Rookie Sault Ste. Marie MPP Ross Romano, for instance, told local media he is seriously considering a bid. But the costs involved ($75,000 entry fee, $125,000 to buy the membership list) could thwart such prospects.
Party President Rick Dykstra – a buddy of Brown’s and likewise a former federal MP – joined Brown in exile, resigning just before Maclean’s published sexual assault allegations against him stemming from 2014.
Fedeli didn’t throw any lifelines to Brown; in fact quite the opposite. Shortly after being named party leader, Fedeli called for Brown to leave the caucus as he defends himself against accusations of sexual misconduct. “While these allegations stand, I can tell you that as leader I would not sign Patrick Brown’s nomination papers,” Fedeli chided. Idle No More’s Georgian Bay chapter piled on, staging a small protest outside Brown’s constituency office.
As if Brown’s and Dykstra’s reputations weren’t battered enough, stories surfaced about maladministration within the party apparatus. Reports of their internal database being hacked fomented fears that it couldn’t be used for the leadership race. Brown’s claims of 200,000 party members were challenged, with some sources suggesting the real membership base is less than half of that. And long-time Ottawa fundraiser Thom Bennett stirred the pot with an email alleging the PC Ontario Fund was “bleeding – nay gushing … hundreds of thousands of dollars” on lawsuits with disgruntled candidates and questionable payments to well-connected supporters. This would be the “rot” Fedeli has vowed to root out.
Alykhan Velshi, Brown’s Chief of Staff, and Communications Director Nick Bergamini were both back in their respective positions the day after Brown left, despite having resigned when it looked like Brown wouldn’t. One of the first acts for Velshi upon resuming the role was to send out an email informing party supporters of major staffing changes. “With any change in leadership comes a need for reorganization,” he explained. “While reorganizations are always difficult, they are also sometimes necessary.” Among those shown the door were former MPP Garfield Dunlop – who gave up his Simcoe North seat to Brown then was hired as an adviser in the Leader’s Office, and Tamara Macgregor, Brown’s Deputy Chief of Staff – whose mother is the PC candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean, one of those accused of winning the nomination through ballot stuffing.
LINES OF DEFENCE –Not surprisingly Brown has gone underground, and it’s anybody’s guess when he will turn up in public again. As his empire collapsed he found himself without many friends, but a few supporters have spoken up on his behalf. His sister was the first to put forth a conspiracy theory (see For The Record, below), suggesting her brother had been set up. Dunlop also defended the former leader, taking exception to Fedeli’s contention that Brown left the party in a mess. “He eliminated the debt, put money in the bank, we have got a whole bunch of brand new, really good candidates,” Dunlop told local media. “How anyone could say there’s rot is beyond my wildest dreams.” (Despite his incredulity and being out of a job, Dunlop added he has no hard feelings toward the Tories, affirming, “I’m not going to go jump on Kathleen Wynne‘s bus or anything like that.”) But it was Conservative MP Alex Nuttall – a key player on the team that helped Brown win the leadership – who most aggressively accused the caucus of a trying to orchestrate a palace coup. “Within 48 hours of the events, we had 28 elites, whose ridings represent less than one per cent of the 200,000 members of the PC Party of Ontario, try to appoint the next [leader], circumventing democracy,” Nuttall fumed.
SHADOWY FIGURES – With Fedeli ensconced as interim Leader, he had to find a replacement as PC Finance Critic, and that job has gone to MacLeod, who adds Finance to her previous critic portfolios of Treasury Board and Anti-Racism. The Tories also needed a new Education Critic – Brown had held that portfolio in addition to his Leader duties. Coe takes on Education, on top of his Post-Secondary Critic portfolio. One other move in the mini-shadow cabinet shuffle sees Lisa Thompson become Caucus Chair and the caucus representative on the Ontario PC Fund Board.
WE’RE NUMBER TWO – A handful of Liberal MPPs also have new roles, as this week saw the final moves stemming from January’s cabinet shuffle. The three former ministers who were shuffled out because they aren’t running for re-election are back in the game as Parliamentary Assistants. Deb Matthews, who was Deputy Premier, will stay close to Wynne as the Premier’s PA. Liz Sandals becomes PA in Infrastructure, and Brad Duguid takes on a specific role in Intergovernmental Affairs, as PA responsible for U.S. State Engagement. Two other PAs add roles, with Amrit Mangat now PA for Tourism, Culture and Sport on top of her Accessibility files, and Han Dong adding Energy to his PA duties in Advanced Education and Skills Development.
Updated wall charts listing MPP responsibilities and key government contacts are now available. Click here to download:
NO LEADER, STILL LEADING – Most pollsters will wait until the dust settles on the PC leadership before trying to gauge how voters react, but Forum Research was in the field just hours after Brown’s resignation. At that point, the controversy had made no appreciable difference. Even with 82% of respondents saying they were aware of the allegations against Brown, the survey still found 42% backing the Tories, compared to 27% for the Liberals and 23% for the NDP – virtually identical to polling data Forum has gathered for months. Perhaps most interesting, of those aware of Brown’s downfall, nearly a quarter, 22%, said it would actually make them more likely to vote Conservative.
Another poll, by Innovative Research, should also bolster the Tories’ sagging morale. According to this survey, the bedrock of PC election hopes – the ongoing unpopularity of the Liberals – remains solid. Innovative found 92% of respondents aware of what had happened to Brown, but it had little impact on voting intentions. In fact, animosity toward Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne actually increased, with “impressions of Kathleen Wynne … more intensively negative at the end of the month (50% very unfavourable) than they were earlier (44% very unfavourable).” Moreover, the number who strongly agreed it is time for a change grew from 40% to 48%.
RED READY – The tribulations of Brown and the Tories just might be a topic of conversation at this weekend’s Ontario Liberal Annual General Meeting in Toronto, but party brass is expected to urge restraint, lest the LIBs be seen as smug (a trait not generally admired by voters). Delegates will get an update on the Liberal strategy – which may be in flux, given the turmoil in the PC camp – as well as discussing the mechanics of the campaign like voter databases and fundraising. And of course there will be plenty of cheerleading, punctuated by a keynote speech not even related to politics. Organizers announced this week that Saturday’s luncheon speaker will be Toronto Argonauts coach Marc Trestman, who will talk about “building a strong team that has what it takes to win.” No word on whether the Grey Cup – which Trestman’s Argos won last November – will be on hand for photo-ops.
CALL TO ORDER – Some very familiar names around Queen’s Park – at least for past generations – were among the 23 Order of Ontario appointees announced this week. Floyd Laughren, an MPP for 27 years and Finance Minister when the New Democrats were in power, is on the list, as is Gail Nyberg, whose presence was felt in Ontario politics as the first Chair of the amalgamated Toronto District School Board and a fierce opponent of then-Premier Mike Harris. Nyberg recently retired as Executive Director of the Daily Bread Food Bank. Other famous names receiving the Order include former federal cabinet minister Allan Rock and legendary actor/comedian Dan Aykroyd.
FOR THE RECORD
“What happened to my brother was disgusting. And make no mistake, he is the victim.”
Stephanie Brown, sister of disgraced former PC Leader Patrick Brown, posting on Facebook that her brother had been felled by a “political hit.” She was one of very few to publicly defend him.
“Make no mistake about it, the elites of this party — the ones who have shut out the grassroots — do not want me in this race. But I’m here to give you a voice … I am deeply troubled by what I have seen recently unfolding within the PC Party. Lifelong supporters of our party have been watching in horror as it falls into complete disarray.”
Grandiloquent as always, Doug Ford announces – from his mother’s basement – that he’s running for the Ontario PC leadership.
“What can every citizen do to change it? Elect more women. Yes, make sure they’re qualified – not every woman is better just because she’s female – but if she’s smart and capable, give her the chance … It’s an awful lot harder for sexist behaviour to go unnoticed or be deliberately ignored when there’s a woman in the room.”
Former BC Premier Christy Clark, as the sexual misconduct scandal cascades across the country, weighing in on the “frat boy behaviour” she saw during her 25 years in politics.
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