BROWN BAGGED – Pandemonium. That’s the state of Queen’s Park in the wake of this week’s shocking resignation of PC Leader Patrick Brown. Wednesday night to Thursday morning was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced, when, in the space of a few hours:
Allegations of sexual misconduct against Brown, dating to his days as a federal MP, surfaced in a CTV report;
Party brass immediately recognized that, even though the accusations stem from a media report and not a police investigation, the mere inference would cripple their election campaign. But Brown initially declined to step aside;
Brown faced the Queen’s Park Press Gallery around 9:45 p.m., looking dishevelled and distraught, categorically denying the accusations and vowing to prove his innocence. He refused to answer media questions and scurried off down the stairs – a video scene that figures to be the most indelible image of the whole episode, and the exclamation point on Brown’s brief career as a provincial leader;
Half a dozen senior PC political and campaign staff staged a mass resignation – seeing the looming crash and bailing out while they still could;
The PC caucus, reportedly unanimously, agreed that Brown had to go, demanding his immediate resignation lest they issue their own statement calling for his ouster;
Brown issued a statement at 1:30 a.m. (!) announcing his resignation as party leader, with intentions to stay on as an MPP as he fights to clear his name.
The tizzy has hardly abated since then, with the story evolving rapidly. It’s all uncharted territory, exacerbated by the urgency of a provincial election in just a few months. The PC caucus will meet today to choose an interim “parliamentary leader,” but there are differing opinions on whether he or she will then lead the party into the election. The expectation is that a formal leadership contest will be hastily put together within weeks, to select a more permanent boss chosen by the full party membership and not just elected MPPs. There’s no shortage of names in the rumour mill to be Brown’s successor, among them MPPs Lisa MacLeod and Vic Fedeli, star candidates Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips, and former MPP Christine Elliott, who lost the leadership bid to Brown in 2015.
And it’s not just the Tories who are scrambling. Liberal and NDP campaign strategies both revolved heavily around denting the frontrunning Brown, and now they, like the PCs, have to revisit their plans. Premier Kathleen Wynne, meanwhile, has been choosing her words carefully, focusing mostly on praising the courage of the women who came forward with the sexual misconduct allegations. In a way, this is a political gift to Wynne (on top of the obvious benefit of her chief opponent being sidelined). Her crusade against sexual harassment – punctuated by the massive “It’s Never Okay” advertising blitz – has been a defining issue for her administration.
MAINSTREET CRED – Obviously, the big question hovering over Ontario now is whether the Tories, with a newly-minted leader, can still win in June. Whomever is fronting the party will at least have a strong base to start from, with Mainstreet Research the latest pollster predicting a PC victory in June – albeit through a survey taken before the Brown implosion. Mainstreet pegged Tory support at 39%, significantly ahead of the Liberals’ 27% and the NDP at just 15%. That last number might give the PC brain-trust some extra indigestion, inasmuch as they likely need a strong showing by the NDP to split centre-left votes.
EARLY WITHDRAWAL – The calendar and weather may suggest otherwise, but spring is in the air around Queen’s Park – as evidenced by the annual pre-Budget consultations that launched this week. Finance Minister Charles Sousa acknowledged that the Budget will be delivered early this year, thanks to the June 7 election – preceded by a month-long writ period – truncating the spring session. Sousa wouldn’t provide a specific date for Budget 2018, and there’s no real precedent to guide guesses on when it might be. Since Ontario moved to fixed election dates, this is the first time the vote is in the spring, coinciding with the usual timeframe for the Budget. The election in June 2014 wasn’t fixed – it came about suddenly in Year 3 of a minority government.
COST OF LIVINGSTON – Some Liberal strategists will no doubt propose February 26 for the Budget. That’s probably too early, but they sure would like a big distraction on that day – it’s when David Livingston, the former Chief of Staff to then-Premier Dalton McGuinty, will be sentenced for illegally deleting emails. Livingston’s conviction sent shockwaves through political circles, not just because he was found guilty of unauthorized use of a computer and attempting to commit mischief to data, but because of the ferocity of the judge’s ruling. In his 108-page decision, Judge Timothy Lipson called Livingston’s behaviour “dishonest” and described it as “a ‘scorched earth’ strategy, where information that could be potentially useful to adversaries, both within and outside of the Liberal Party, would be destroyed.” Further, Lipson outright dismissed defence arguments that wiping the computers was aimed at eliminating personally sensitive emails, rather than destroying conversations around cancelling gas plants, which as been the narrative put forward by the Opposition. “All gas plants all the time – the political backdrop is relevant,” Lipson concluded. “No issues were more challenging or dangerous to the minority Liberal government. This was the grim political backdrop.” Reactions to the conviction were swift and predictable. Brown (in what turned out to be one of his last pronouncements as party leader) offered a caustic, “The guilty verdict is an indictment of the 15 years of Liberal political corruption that has long been rooted in the premier’s office.” Premier Wynne’s office went into full ‘not us’ mode, issuing a statement maintaining, “This matter involved former staff to the former premier. We’ve been clear from the start that this is not how anyone in government should operate, and it is not how a premier’s office should operate.” As for the electoral impact, many pundits have noted that June’s campaign will be the third straight election with the gas plant scandal as a central theme. The first produced a Liberal minority, the second a Liberal majority.
CLARK SNARK – With Brown trying to present a gentler, more civil image for the PC party – which presumably will continue under his successor – many eyebrows were raised, among Tories themselves, at the vitriol in a missive to PC supporters around the nomination of long-time senior banker Ed Clark as Chair of the LCBO. “Yesterday the Ontario Liberal Party shone the bat-signal down University Avenue to let Ed Clark know Kathleen Wynne needed him back,” the email sneered. “With Wynne Yes Man Red Ed now chair of the LCBO, well-connected, insider friends of Kathleen Wynne will continue to get ahead while you and your family struggle to get by … Like a bad bottle of wine at a restaurant, it’s time we send back Wynne Yes Man Red Ed.” This originated from the Ontario PC Media office, and insiders say there has been a talking-to about such over-the-top language. Word is some senior Tories have had a hate-on for Clark since he helped orchestrate the National Energy Program under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals way back in 1980. That Clark has been a key business advisor to Wynne has only intensified the hostility.
PAT SIGNAL – Tories weren’t the only ones reading between the lines of missives in recent days, as tweets from former Liberal senior operative Pat Sorbara added to the intrigue around her abrupt departure from the campaign helm last week. Sorbara’s posts suggested it wasn’t her choice to leave. “Two things I know for sure about politics: 1) it is not for the faint of heart and 2) if you work as political staff, you serve at the pleasure of the Leader,” she wrote, then elaborated on her emotions after being acquitted of bribery charges stemming from a Sudbury by-election, returning to party headquarters, and having it not work out. “For the past 3 years, fall out from the #Sudbury by-election impacted me deeply, on many levels. What kept me going the entire time was an intense desire to return to help… Buoyed by the unequivocal judgement that there had been no wrongdoing, I did just that. But issues re-integrating into the existing team proved too tough to overcome. The Leader made the decision she felt best and I am no longer part of the campaign.” Of most concern to the LIBs, from a morale standpoint, was the notion that Sorbara didn’t go voluntarily. “I am very saddened by her decision but I defend the Leader’s right to make it,” she posted, but softened it with, “Another thing I know about politics is sometimes tough calls are unavoidable…. I wish Premier @Kathleen Wynne & everyone in the campaign all the best. Truly.” As well as being chief tactician, Sorbara was co-chair of the Liberal election campaign. Insiders are keenly awaiting a new org chart, as promised by Wynne, to see who, if anyone, gets that title.
NAME RECOGNITION – Politicos of a certain age were shocked to see a headline this week that Sean Conway is running for the NDP in Peterborough! Oh, not that Sean Conway. The former Liberal cabinet minister and master orator who served in the Legislature from 1975-2003 is reportedly quite happy in his political retirement as an academic. The Sean Conway running in Peterborough is a 26-year-old folk/country musician and booking agent.
FOR THE RECORD
“It’s heart breaking to have one’s reputation falsely smeared like this. I feel like I was run over by a car.”
Suddenly-ex-PC Leader Patrick Brown, in a text to Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington, his only public comment since being forced to step down amid sexual misconduct allegations in the early hours of Thursday morning.
“The political fallout will be what the political fallout will be.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne, assiduously avoiding any partisan commentary on the Brown resignation.
“This is not about me and it’s not about my campaign. This is about women coming forward and calling out behaviour that they experienced.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, also steering clear of political messaging. Horwath did take a personal shot at Brown, though, asserting that he should be gone from the Legislature altogether: “If he was in my caucus, he would not be sitting as an MPP any longer.”
“[Spending restrictions are] a gag on free speech by allowing only government and corporate media to have unfettered access to Ontarians. The Ontario government has no such restrictions during the six months leading up to an election and neither do the media. How are ordinary Ontarians and the organizations they support to get their concerns known?”
Working Families spokesman Patrick Dillon, after the labour-based coalition launched a constitutional challenge against new rules limiting third-party spending during election campaigns.
“We’re dealing with someone of prior unblemished character with an outstanding career in the business community, time in public service as the chief executive officer of Infrastructure Ontario and a very brief period in the office of the premier – a career as a political staffer of something of about eight months in duration.”
Brian Glover, lawyer for convicted senior political aide David Livingston, test-driving his arguments for a fine or probation, rather than jail, as punishment for illegally destroying government emails. Livingston’s deputy at the time, Laura Miller, was acquitted on the same charges.
“Do you want to hang out at Kathleen Wynne’s lounge? There has to be a level of innovation in this industry. There has to be a level of privatization.”
Abi Roach, owner of Toronto’s Hotbox Café, advocating for private, less restrictive cannabis lounges as part of Ontario’s new rules when recreational marijuana is legalized next summer.
Enterprise is a leading Canadian public affairs firm with expertise in government relations, digital and public relations. Our public affairs agency has offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara and Six Nations.