Dogged by 'socially divisive' issues, Patrick Brown tries to hone his message

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown sought to clarify his policy positions Monday after political opponents criticized the party's list of 139 ideas for its election platform — released last week — as vague and lacking substance.

PC leader says platform will become more concrete after input is gathered province-wide

Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown vowed to develop his campaign platform from the bottom up. His party's grassroots have now floated 139 policy ideas to be voted on by the membership next month. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown sought to clarify his policy positions Monday after political opponents criticized the party's list of 139 ideas for its election platform — released last week — as vague and lacking substance. 

"I wanted this to be the most grassroots-driven policy process that we've ever had," Brown said of his decision to gather input from party members province-wide. 

"Some of the foolish mistakes that my predecessors made could have been avoided if they took those items to the membership," Brown told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

In an interview last week, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews said the lengthy list is "just motherhood and apple pie," noting the sparse detail in many of the points. 

"We don't know anything more about who is he or what he stands for than we did before," she told CBC Toronto.

The resolutions cover a lot of political ground, but they do not, for example, directly address Premier Kathleen Wynne's plans for $15 minimum wage, rent control measures, completely prescription drug coverage for all Ontarians under 25 and tuition help for students from low-income families. 

Brown points out, however, that the list will only be used as a basis for votes at the PC's upcoming convention in November, and that his final policy platform will be thorough in its detail. He painted criticisms from his rivals as part of their messaging to voters that he's reluctant to take a firm stance on some issues.

"I think there are some of my political opponents that want to create that picture, frankly. My political opponents are running negative ads to that effect now. But those are people who are trying to distract from the real political debate," he told host Matt Galloway in the nearly 15-minute interview.

Accusations of flip-flopping

While Brown has spent years focusing on his economic ambitions for Ontario, he continues to face tough questions, especially on what he called "socially divisive" topics.

Some of the confusion surrounding his positions dates back to late summer last year, when, during the Scarborough-Rouge River byelection, the PCs circulated 13,000 copies of a letter in English and Chinese promising to scrap the updated sex ed curriculum implemented by the Liberals.

Brown faced accusations of flip-flopping, as he had not previously committed to axe the syllabus entirely. He later said the letter was delivered without his knowledge, thought it was eventually reported that his then chief of staff and the PC Party president both knew about the missive before it went out.

He also caught flak for an email sent to a socially conservative supporter in which he promised to repeal the curriculum, later issuing a statement saying he was "mistaken" to oppose it and that his views had since "evolved." 

The PC leader has faced similar questions about his stance on abortion, which the Liberals seem eager to make an election issue in 2018.

As a backbench MP in 2012, Brown voted 'yes' on Motion 312, which ostensibly would have ordered a new study on when life begins in the womb and a review on what sorts of legislative authority could be used to change existing law.  While some Liberals and Conservatives alike voted in favour of the motion, it was opposed by many other prominent socially conservative Tories, including former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Brown is tasked with not alienating the kind of socially conservative members who voted in MP Sam Oosterhoff, a 20-year-old from Niagara West-Glanbrook who has vocally opposed same-sex marriage and abortion rights. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"That motion was not about limiting a woman's right to choose," Brown contended Monday, saying that he has been unequivocal in opposing any moves that would indeed limit that right. 

"Every member of our party knows where I stand. There are not issues we are going to be revisiting," he said. 

Recent developments suggest that Brown faces dissension within his own party, particularly from socially conservative members who feel he has ceded too much political ground already.

But Brown insists that he won't "entertain" any attempts to vote on resolutions regarding same-sex marriage — which he has vocally supported — or abortion.

"I wanted to be very clear, the policies I run on have to ones that I believe in in my heart and that I can defend," he said.

"If any members wanted to put forward resolutions that would diminish the rights of same sex couples or limit a woman's right to choose, it's not something I could support."

The Ontario PCs will hold their convention in Toronto on November 25.