LIFE OF THE PARTY – If a Hollywood screenwriter submitted a script with the characters and plot twists of the current PC leadership race, it would be rejected as too far-fetched. Every day brings new complications, realignment of heroes and villains, and a shifting landscape that makes it utterly impossible to project how it might all turn out. To summarize:
Patrick Brown, he of the frazzled media chase and middle-of-the-night resignation in late January, is now in the extraordinary position of running to replace himself – and thoroughly dominating attention around that race. Insisting that his name has been cleared by refutations of the CTV News story that triggered his ouster, Brown categorically un-resigned and registered his candidacy minutes before the deadline last Friday. Citing grassroots support for his belief he was railroaded, Brown declared, “The party membership want their party back. The party membership doesn’t want to see anything hijacked.” That’s right, “hijacked” – an incendiary word that suggests Brown is out for vengeance against those he sees as having engineered his downfall.
Almost as extraordinarily, Brown is running for the leadership as an outsider, having been kicked out of the PC caucus earlier that same Friday. Interim Leader Vic Fedeli further declared that Brown would not be acceptable as the party’s candidate for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, meaning he will have to re-seek the nomination as well as the leadership. For now, Brown remains the MPP for Simcoe North, albeit as an independent. (The Ontario Legislative Highlights wall chart listing MPP responsibilities has been updated to reflect this change. Click here to download: MPP Chart.)
Because he was no longer a nominated candidate, Brown had to go through a vetting process to be cleared for his leadership bid. This created some tense moments as the approvals committee met for more than four hours. Ultimately Brown was given the okay – as were the three other leadership candidates not yet sanctioned in specific ridings. Officially the decision on Brown was unanimous, but some media reports said it was a 3-2 vote – yet another indication of the turmoil around Brown’s attempted comeback.
Despite the solid support Brown supposedly enjoyed a scant month ago, he clearly has some enemies, as evidenced by the venom that greeted his resurrection. A sampling:
Leadership candidate Doug Ford: “The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party is objectively stronger without Patrick Brown. The rot that was identified by our interim leader is real and serious. It has served as an obstacle to our victory in June.”
Leadership candidate Caroline Mulroney (previously described as a long-time family friend of Brown’s): “This is a distraction from [beating the Liberals] and I am disappointed … A leadership election is not the place for him to try to clear his name.”
PC MPP Randy Hillier (who filed a complaint with the Integrity Commissioner calling for an investigation into Brown’s “financial improprieties”): “Patrick Brown has been engaged in dirty and crooked politics for too long in this province and people have now found some substantial, significant evidence… I’ve known Patrick Brown to lie just about every time he opens his mouth.”
All of this raises the burning question, what happens if Brown wins the leadership? Fedeli and Hillier would almost certainly have to resign – they couldn’t very well run under a Brown banner – as would possibly Lisa MacLeod and other caucus members who have been openly disdainful of Brown. Ditto for some senior PC staff, who abandoned Brown when he initially tried to defend himself.
Brown does have a couple of caucus supporters, with long-time MPP Toby Barrett on hand when he filed his registration for the leadership, and rookie MPP Ross Romano affirming his support. As the Legislature resumed this week, Barrett was in the back row of the PC benches near Brown’s desk, which is now in the “independent” section of the Assembly floor. Brown has yet to sit at that desk, eschewing any appearances in the House.
Conspiracy or otherwise, Brown’s return seemed to declare open season on his character. Even as he proclaimed his innocence on the sexual impropriety allegations, media stories kept popping up that questioned his behaviour:
Hillier’s complaint to the Integrity Commissioner cited a raft of ethics violations including non-disclosure of gifts such as free trips, and challenged how he could afford a $2.3 million house on his salary.
A Globe and Mail exposé outlined an alleged clandestine deal involving Air Miles points, part ownership of a bar in Barrie and real estate deals, purportedly in exchange for a PC candidate’s nomination.
The Toronto Star outed Brown’s sometime girlfriend Genevieve Gualtieri, who worked for him as an intern and accompanied him on overseas trips, raising questions about whether she was there on business and who paid her fare. Gaultieri, for the record, staunchly defended Brown, calling him “one of the most respectful, decent and caring individuals I have ever met.”
Brown was a no-show at a scheduled radio interview with Toronto’s Newstalk 1010, standing up not only host Jerry Agar but a throng of TV cameras there to record the event. Brown’s Press Secretary took the blame, but Agar wasn’t buying it. He railed against Brown for the rest of his radio show, and continued the rant in a Toronto Sun column. Noting that he had previously defended Brown, Agar impugned his propensity to blame others, writing, “it is starting to feel like the dog ate Patrick Brown’s homework one too many times.”
Brown declined any wrongdoing regarding all of the above accusations. He mostly dismissed them as part of the “hatchet job” being waged against him by elitist insiders – a central theme of his re-election campaign.
The notion of Brown re-winning the leadership is not as implausible as it might seem at first glance. Most of the party memberships – he claimed more than 200,000, Fedeli reported the number to be somewhere closer to 130,000 – were sold by Brown or under his leadership. Even if true membership is as low as 75,000 as claimed by some, if the majority of those members – who are the ones who get to vote in the leadership – are loyal to Brown he could come out on top, in much the same way he won in the first place in 2015.
FAILING UPWARD – Just as astonishing as the PC upheaval, pretty much every public opinion poll shows the Tories gaining in popularity throughout these tribulations. Forum Research found the PCs with 49% support (a jump of seven points from before Brown’s implosion), compared to the Liberals with 24% and the NDP at 19%. Ipsos reported less of a gap, but had the Tories still leading with 38%, against the LIBs’ 29% and the NDP’s 26%. Mainstreet Research tested various PC leadership scenarios, and pegged the Tories as winning with all of them (except fringe candidate Tanya Granic Allen), giving the Tories between 34% (Mulroney) and 39% support (Brown), ahead of the Liberals in the 24-27% range and the NDP in the mid-teens. All of this data is surely galling for the Liberals, but they are comforting themselves with analysis from pollster Nik Nanos, who tweeted, “many times when parties do not have leaders their numbers go up because there is no single leader to repel them … they can project a choice onto the party.”
SOCIALIST BUTTERFLY – Even if polls show the Tories still ahead, Ontario’s New Democrats can clearly sense an opportunity to grab voters fed up with the Liberals. As the spring legislative session got underway, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath offered a new riff on the tried and true vote-for-change sentiment. Noting that the Tories are “deep in a leadership crisis,” Horwath said her party is the one that will provide “change for the better.” Earlier in the week, Horwath spoke to delegates at the national NDP convention in Ottawa. Mischievous Liberals circulated photos of large swaths of empty chairs at the back of the ballroom during the speech, but Horwath was undaunted, later tweeting, “We’re not going to settle for the damage that the other parties have done. We will bring Hydro One back into public hands, create universal pharmacare and fix long-term care. We will turn the page on decades of cuts & privatization. We will deliver change for the better.”
IN THE HOUSE
As the Legislature resumed, the Liberals moved quickly to start re-populating the Order Paper:
Treasury Board President Eleanor McMahon introduced Bill 194, the Fairness in Procurement Act, to set a framework for Ontario to respond to discriminatory procurement – i.e. “Buy American” – policies in the United States, specifically New York State.
Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde introduced Bill 195, the Correctional Services Transformation Act, to modernize Ontario’s correctional system including clarifying definitive rules around segregation, improving confinement conditions and reforming health-care services.
McMahon also introduced Bill 196, the Supply Act, routine legislation to authorize the public payroll until the end of the fiscal year.
Government and Consumer Services Minister Tracy MacCharles introduced Bill 199, the Access to Consumer Credit Reports and Elevator Availability Act, to improve consumer access to credit scores and elevator maintenance records.
“There was no deception. Upon evaluating the lengthy pre-test interviews and the polygraphic charts, I am of the opinion that Mr. Patrick Brown is being truthful while answering the relevant questions asked of him during the tests.”
Polygraph expert John Galianos, after reviewing lie detector test results obtained by Postmedia, part of former and would-be-future PC Leader Patrick Brown’s refutation of sexual misconduct allegations.
“Over the next weeks you may hear or see stories questioning my integrity, character and my leadership of our party. This small group of insiders will stop at nothing in their attempts to derail us. These stories and accusations come from people who feel backed into a corner by the choices they have made, rather than any choice or decision I have ever made.”
Brown, in a missive to supporters, accusing an unnamed – so far – cabal of conspiring to bring down his leadership. He further accused the plotters of having illegally gained access to his personal finances, and “they have taken that stolen information to the media to cast further doubt.”
“They’re big shoes to fill … loafers, cowboy boots, high heels. They’re all iconic politicians in Ontario.”
Former St. Catharines City Councillor Jeff Burch, named as the NDP candidate in Niagara Centre. Based on the area’s history, that should make him a lock to be an MPP, in what has been an NDP stronghold for more than 40 years. Burch is aiming to replace the retiring Cindy Forster (who, incidentally, was granted a lifetime membership in the party upon her pending retirement), following in the footsteps of Mel Swart, who first took the riding in 1975 and was succeeded by the bombastic Peter Kormos in 1988, who gave way to Forster in 2011.
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