Toronto·Analysis

Patrick Brown must reach out beyond PC Party faithful to challenge Liberals

Patrick Brown's self-described "pragmatic" conservatism resonated with the Ontario PC faithful, as evidenced by his party leadership win Saturday. The larger question is whether it will resonate with the rest of the province — where it is often said that "bland works."

Brown, 36, says he's ready to embrace new ideas from outside Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party

Patrick Brown, winner of Saturday's Ontario PC leadership convention, is anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage and opposes the province's new sexual-education curriculum. No one would ever accuse the 36-year-old Brown of being bland when it comes to policy, CBC's Robert Fisher writes. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

It was said by Patrick Brown's opponents and critics that he was untested and unknown. Based on the weekend's Progressive Conservative leadership results, they forgot to say underestimated.

For a second time, Whitby-Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott has failed in a bid to lead her party, and this time it wasn't even close. Brown, member of Parliament for Barrie, won big right across the province. 

While his self-described "pragmatic" conservatism resonated with the party faithful, the larger question is whether it will resonate with the rest of the province — where it is often said "bland works." 

No one would ever accuse the 36-year-old Brown of being bland when it comes to policy. He is anti-abortion, opposes same-sex marriage and believes that sex education should be "taught at home" rather than in the classroom. 

However, what makes him politically dangerous for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals is that on policy, he is something of a moving target. Brown is ready, he says, to accept ideas from everyone in his party and outsiders, too. Whatever it takes, he says, to make "Ontario work again"  and to — as some Tories and political players say privately — get elected.

Brown will be hard to typecast, and the Liberals will need more than slogans that he is "not ready for primetime," and silly little campaign buttons, and toy tea cups and saucers given to reporters, to do it. 

The new Progressive Conservative leader has a huge job ahead of him, beginning with uniting his clearly divided party. His one-on-one phone calls to his caucus marks a good start.

'Party of the Flat Earth Society'?

And Brown did hit all the right notes in his acceptance speech, with kind and important words for Elliott. But, when she should have been at his side, or at least nearby, she was nowhere to be found. What does that say about unity?

During his speech, Brown was surrounded by Conservative MPPs — most of whom supported Elliott — book-ended by one-time leadership hopeful Monte McNaughton. McNaughton upset the caucus with his strong anti-sex education stand, and more recently his description of Elliott's "big blue tent" as the "big pink tent" while referring to her as "Christine Elliott Trudeau."
Whitby-Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott came up short in her second bid to lead the Ontario PC Party. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

At the other end of the stage stood smiling Brown supporter Rick Nichols, PC MPP from Chatham-Kent, known for shouting in the Ontario Legislature that "it's not a bad idea" to stop teaching evolution in schools.

Brown has embraced both men, publicly thanking McNaughton for his "principled" stand on the issues. But there are those in the party who believe that neither MPP represents the real views of Ontarians.

As one senior, unaligned Conservative privately put it to me, the party will not enjoy electoral success again if it is seen as "the party of the Flat Earth Society." 

Brown needs to cultivate party unity

Brown included a shout-out in his speech to Ontario's increasingly influential ethnic communities, groups to which he managed to appeal during the campaign in a way similar to onetime Alberta premier Alison Redford did.

But Tory insiders say Redford ultimately forgot the people who brought her to office — something Brown cannot afford to repeat. Nor can he alienate Elliott's supporters.

Brown will need every Conservative inside and outside Queen's Park to pull together, even though some clearly feel he's going in the wrong direction.

So while "job one" is to find a seat in the legislature, Brown must also fully define himself and, if not his policies, at least their proposed direction, all while keeping an eye on the political clock that's already ticking down.

Brown is a runner like Premier Wynne. The race to the October 2018 election finish line is now a whole lot more interesting. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for CBC.ca. He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.

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