Conservative stalwart Lebreton's advice to Ontario leader Patrick Brown: 'Do the right thing'
Former senator says she's disappointed with Brown's decisions and 'tactics' in handling nominations
Retired senator Marjory LeBreton's work in conservative politics stretches back six decades to the John Diefenbaker era. She's among Canada's most steadfast conservatives, her fierce loyalty well-known in political circles.
So it may come as a surprise that she would criticize the state of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party and Patrick Brown's leadership. But that's exactly what she did in a recent interview with CBC.
"This is painful for me to even be participating in this, participating in doing anything to hurt the party," LeBreton said by phone from her Ottawa home.
What has upset LeBreton is how party officials are handling nominations for next June's election. Brown, who served as a federal MP before winning the provincial leadership in 2015, has a solid shot at seizing power from Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose approval ratings hit a record low in March of 12 per cent.
But LeBreton is worried Brown's team is relying too heavily on the idea of riding Wynne's wave of unpopularity to victory. She and other conservatives CBC spoke to claim the Conservative leadership isn't listening to grassroots members, running roughshod over local riding associations, and not heeding the warnings of party elders like LeBreton.
Allegations of shady campaign tactics have been made in multiple ridings, including in Ottawa West-Nepean where Karma Macgregor defeated Jeremy Roberts by just 15 votes at the nomination meeting in May. LeBreton lives in a nearby riding but knows Roberts and was there for support. All these months later, she still sounded incredulous at what she says she witnessed.
'Fraudulent' voting witnessed
"I've been involved in politics going back to Diefenbaker, provincially and federally, and I had never seen anything like it," LeBreton said of how the voting played out.
"It was just blatant, it was fraudulent, you could see it before your very eyes."
She was among those who advocated, unsuccessfully, for a new nomination meeting given the small margin of Macgregor's victory, evidence of ballot stuffing, and other concerns.
Macgregor, a longtime party organizer, wrote to supporters after the meeting that she's not sure "if any of these allegations have any truth to them." She said her team ran a clean campaign, didn't ask for special treatment, and worked hard to sell memberships.
Roberts filed an appeal to challenge the result, but shortly afterward Brown declared that all nominees to that point were officially the candidates and no appeals would be heard.
That decision prompted one of the PC party's vice-presidents to resign and the Ottawa West-Nepean riding executive to quit in protest. That's happened in other ridings as well, and a defeated candidate in Hamilton took the party to court over allegations of voter fraud.
LeBreton said Brown and his team are alienating riding associations "at their peril." Those are the dedicated party members who hammer in the lawn signs and go door-to-door when the writ drops, the volunteers who will help a PC government get elected, she said.
But they're feeling ignored and discouraged, and some conservatives are abandoning the party — even considering voting NDP, according to LeBreton.
Loyalists being ignored
"That to me is like a leap right off the cliff," she said.
LeBreton isn't ditching the party but is instead focusing her efforts on individual candidates, rather than using her influence to promote Brown. She said she's not happy with the tactics the leader and some party executive members have used so far.
"I'm not abandoning the party. I'm just saying please do things properly, conduct yourselves appropriately, and show that you are worthy of running a democratic political party and therefore worthy of forming a government."
If Brown wanted certain candidates, he should have said so from the outset instead of putting people through the "phoney facade" of transparent nomination meetings, she said.
"Karma Macgregor happens to be the mother of a person who works on Patrick Brown's staff. It's all so odious," said LeBreton, who was appointed to the Senate by her former boss Brian Mulroney and was Conservative leader in the upper chamber in Stephen Harper's government.
LeBreton said she's expressed her concerns about nominations to the party leadership and has been ignored.
"It makes me feel like how a lot of good, solid, loyal conservatives feel — that we've got Patrick Brown and a group around him that are so sure we are going to win the next election, just because of the unpopularity of Kathleen Wynne, that they really don't care what I or a lot of loyal conservatives have to say."
Dykstra defends Brown
Party president Rick Dykstra told CBC there is no truth to allegations that Brown is meddling in nominations. He said in an interview that he understands some people are upset about certain results but that concerns are being addressed, in part by hiring audit firm PwC to oversee remaining nomination meetings.
Dykstra, a former MP with Brown in Ottawa, rejected the idea that Brown is taking any leads in the polls for granted and undervaluing party members.
"That's not his nature, not his character," said Dykstra. "He realizes that all of us have to work extremely hard … to win in the next election. He knows that the best way for him to get that out of people is to show it himself, and he's leading by example."
The party president expressed respect for LeBreton but said it's "unfortunate" that she's airing her complaints publicly. Brown, Dykstra and LeBreton have known each other for years through their time together on Parliament Hill.
"Marjory has a lot of experience, a lot of years, and time and time again in Ottawa we kept those differences, when they were there, we kept them in the caucus room and we always came out united," said Dykstra.
LeBreton said damage has been done to the conservative family but she's still hopeful that Brown and his advisers will "see the error of their ways" and re-engage with party members they've turned off, from the grassroots to high-profile people like her.
"All I want him to do is do the right thing," she said.
Brown's office, when asked for comment about LeBreton's concerns, said Dykstra's comments would suffice. After CBC interviewed Dykstra, Brown called LeBreton, according to the retired senator. She told CBC she appreciated the call and it was a "productive chat."