Ontario PC convention chance for leader Patrick Brown to chart new course

About 1,500 Ontario Progressive Conservatives are gathered in Toronto to hone their election strategy, receive training, and hear a keynote address from leader Patrick Brown.

Opposition party to present nearly 140 broad policy resolutions contributed by members

Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown has been busy trying to fend off Liberal attacks that suggest he is a thinly disguised social conservative. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

​With just over six months before Ontario's next provincial election, opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is meeting with party faithful on Saturday to shore up support and possibly announce new policy.

About 1,500 Ontario Progressive Conservatives are gathered in Toronto to hone their election strategy, receive training, and hear a keynote address from leader Patrick Brown. The party will also present 139 broad policy resolutions that have been adopted by members.

Kevin Gaudet, PC convention co-chairman, said the gathering at the Toronto Congress Centre will give Brown, who he acknowledges is still little known by most in the province, a chance to speak to a wide audience.

"I expect that Patrick Brown's speech will be a watershed speech that people should tune into," he said. "I'm highly optimistic that Ontarians will see the beginnings of important announcements to come as we lead up to next year's election." 
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown speaks at the International Plowing Match in Walton, Ont., on Sept. 19, 2017. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Gaudet said the policy convention won't actually include much debate about policy — that has already occurred over the past 18 months within the party itself. Brown will use the policy resolutions to develop the Tory election platform in greater detail in the coming months, he said.

"We have no intention of re-visiting decisions that have already been made at this point in time," Gaudet said. "Instead, we're looking forward to a fulsome conversation and hearing (Brown's) speech and vision for getting Ontario back on-track."

Many of the policy resolutions adopted by party members are broad. They range from statements like making "life more affordable for families with young children" to working "to expand all-season roads to remote communities in Northern Ontario."

But Brown told The Canadian Press earlier this month that some topics, including social conservative issues, will be off limits at the convention.

"Any policy that attempts to limit a woman's right to choose or the ability of same-sex couples to marry are off limits, period," Brown said. 
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown walks on Lawrence Avenue East in Toronto before speaking to the media. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Brown, who as a former backbench MP in former prime minister Stephen Harper's government had voted in favour of reopening the abortion debate, has been busy trying to fend off Liberal attacks that he is a thinly disguised social conservative. He says he is pro-choice and more recently has led Pride parade delegations.

Social conservatives inside the party have accused Brown of flip-flopping on the issue of sex education — Brown spoke at an anti-sex-ed rally during the leadership campaign, promised in an email to a supporter that he would repeal Ontario's updated sex-ed curriculum, and then promised in a letter in a 2016 byelection to scrap it, though he later said he was unaware of the letter before it went out.

Carbon tax is another policy that will be off limits at the weekend convention.

Brown has already promised he would dismantle the current cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instead implement a carbon tax that would be offset by other tax cuts — to the chagrin of some of the base.

Gaudet said the party is prepared for some push-back from members who disagree with the direction Brown is taking the PCs.

"I would say we're prepared for any eventuality," he said. 

"We are a broad-based party ... For those who may not have gotten their way on any issue we'd say, like in any environment, one doesn't always get their way on everything. At the end of the day, we hope and expect that those individuals recognize that (Brown's) vision is a good vision."

Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University, said the challenge for Brown at the convention will be
to move away from his current "risk averse" strategy and to set himself apart from the Liberal government with new ideas.

"Most of the resolutions seem to be very vague and general," he said. "It's often dangerous in politics and sports. It's like you're sitting on the lead in a hockey game going into the final period and ... you say, I'm just not going to make any mistakes now and I'll win this game. That often doesn't work."

'Campaigns matter'

Jacek said the convention will also need to serve as a chance for Brown to appeal to, and unite, the disparate elements in his party who disagree with elements of his agenda.

"He's got a tough time trying to keep everyone together and make sure that no big mistakes are made that could cost him his lead," he said.

Gaudet said the party is aware of its political record — having lost four consecutive elections to the Liberals — and even with a healthy lead in most opinion polls, members can't let up.

"Polling leads don't matter, campaigns matter," he said. "No one takes anything for granted. There's a lot of hard work to do."

Liberal Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca will attend the Tory convention Saturday as an observer. He said it's "ridiculous" that it's taken years for the party under Brown's leadership to come up with its policies.

"The people of Ontario have had more than two years to get to know Patrick Brown and to try to figure out where he stands on the issues that are so important for them and their families," he said.