By next summer, a year ahead of the 2018 election, the Progressive Conservative Party aims to have candidates nominated in every single riding in Ontario. To all those thinking of running, PC leader Patrick Brown is sending a message: social conservatives, keep out.

Despite winning the party leadership with significant backing from social conservatives, Brown has vowed to make his party more socially progressive.

He is struggling to make that a reality, as people with strong views against same-sex marriage, abortion and the province's new sex-ed curriculum seek nominations. 

During a news conference at Queen's Park on Thursday, Brown spoke at length about his party's process for vetting candidates. 

"If your reason for going to Queen's Park would be to push a divisive social issue, then that would be unwelcome," he said.  "People can have their private religious views, but just know where I stand and what the focus of our party is." 

That focus includes jobs, hydro rates, and cutting government waste, said Brown. He said many potential candidates are expressing interest in running for the PCs and "the vast, vast, vast majority have no interest in revisiting social issues."

It's essential for Brown, if he wants to become premier of Ontario, to keep his party away from politically toxic causes like de-funding abortion or questioning same-sex marriage. Pollsters suggest too few Ontarians hold conservative views on social issues to make it a path to electoral victory. 

MPP Monte McNaughton at anti-sex ed protest

Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton speaks to protesters during an April 2015 demonstration against proposed changes to Ontario's sex-education curriculum. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

A poll published last month by Forum Research found 70 per cent of Ontarians approve of legalized abortion and 71 per cent support for same-sex marriage. The same polling found only 33 per cent of Ontarians oppose the new sex-ed curriculum. 

"The province is not socially conservative," said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, adding that it's "absolutely crucial" for Brown to shed that label.

Bozinoff told me in an interview that the PCs must reach beyond their base of about 30 per cent of the electorate and appeal to other voters to win a majority. "Those voters are centrist. They don't react well to social conservatism," he said.

The Liberals continue to do everything they can to paint Brown with that brush.

Brown's 'big conversion'

"Patrick Brown, until recent months, was a strong social-conservative himself," the Liberal campaign co-chair, deputy premier Deb Matthews, told reporters at Queen's Park last week. 

"This is who he was until he had this big conversion," Matthews said, pointing to his record as a backbench MP in Ottawa during the Stephen Harper years. "He voted to reopen the debate on same-sex marriage, voted to open the debate on abortion. He has a long history of aligning himself with social conservative organizations."

Sam Oosterhoff

Sam Oosterhoff celebrates his victory in the Niagara West-Glanbrook byelection in November, as PC leader Patrick Brown looks on. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

 

Brown doesn't like to talk about that voting record, preferring instead to mention how he became the first Ontario PC leader to lead an official delegation in Toronto's Pride Parade. 

He calls the Liberal efforts to label him a social conservative "desperate diversion tactics."

"The shoe doesn't fit," Brown said. "When I get up every day in the Legislature asking questions  my focus is on the financial health of Ontario."

The Liberals are "trying to demonize me," said Brown. "They're embarrassed at their own record and so their only path is to demonize their opponents."

Brown's efforts to portray himself as socially progressive weren't helped by the surprise nomination in Niagara West - Glanbrook of Sam Oosterhoff, a 19-year-old who opposes abortion, and has criticized the sex-ed curriculum and a bill improving the parental rights of same-sex couples.

But since being sworn in as an MPP on Nov. 30, Oosterhoff has refused to take the bait on any social issue, suggesting the leader and the party have told him to tread carefully.   

Since Oosterhoff won his nomination in October, the PC party has rejected the candidacies of at least two people with strong socially conservative views. The party refuses to reveal the grounds for rejection.  

"If someone is disqualified, it's for very legitimate reasons," Brown said. "If they have something in their past that is not part of the direction we're taking, that would embarrass the party, they're not going to be approved as a candidate. We have the right to do that."