Patrick Brown's arrival in Legislature poses test for Wynne Liberals
New PC leader takes seat Monday as Queen’s Park resumes
When the Ontario Legislature resumes sitting on Monday after a three-month summer break, keep your eyes on the newest MPP, who happens to be the leader of the Official Opposition.
PC Leader Patrick Brown is taking his seat for the first time as the newly-elected member for Simcoe North. Most importantly for Brown, his landslide victory in the byelection puts him right where he needs to be to hold the government to account: a few metres across the aisle from Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Brown's arrival in the Legislature will be a test for Wynne and the Liberals. They've had a relatively cushy time of it in the year since Tim Hudak quit as PC leader, leaving the official Opposition divided and unfocused.
The Liberals have pretty much been able to coast since winning a majority in June last year. You can't exactly call it a honeymoon, since they've now been in power for 12 years straight, but they gained a post-election boost of legitimacy. It's given them the ability to respond to most opposition criticisms with some version of: "Well, the voters didn't pick you, they gave us a majority, so we're right and you're wrong."
Now their goal will be to define the virtually unknown Patrick Brown in the minds of voters before he gets a chance to define himself. Expect the Liberals to continue in the same vein as they did during the Simcoe North byelection campaign: trying to paint Brown as a hard-right social conservative who's against gay marriage and a woman's right to choose abortion.
'I support same sex marriage'
"I have said again and again and again that I support same sex marriage," Brown told me in an interview the day before the Sept. 3 byelection, sounding genuinely frustrated. "I've made it very clear that we're not revisiting the abortion debate."
Even since Brown won the byelection, the Liberals have continued to attack brown on social issues, with cabinet minister Brad Duguid saying, "What did he tell the pro-life movement to get their support in his leadership campaign that he's not telling us now?"
The Liberals' long-term goal with this is to marginalize Brown and the PCs, trying to persuade voters that his party is too out-of-touch, too old-fashioned, too rural, and too white to be in power in 21st century Ontario. (Every single one of the 27 PC MPPs is white).
Brown will try to avoid this in a couple of key ways.
He is already trying to broaden the PC tent. In the past week alone, he's been pictured meeting with members of the Korean, Filipino and Eritrean communities.
In the Legislature, expect him to champion economic issues. His first questions during Question Period, which will get underway at 10:30 a.m. Monday, will give you a sign of where he's headed. Expect him to take aim at such things as hydro rates, the proposed Hydro One sell-off, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, and the province's credit rating.
Sex-ed curriculum a sensitive issue
Brown will also be trying to walk a delicate line on the sex-education curriculum controversy. He has designated himself the party's education critic, not a shadow-cabinet portfolio that I've seen an opposition leader take on, perhaps a sign of the sensitivity of the issue.
I asked Brown last week specifically whether he has concerns about any of the content in the new curriculum. His answer was anything but direct: "The government should engage parents and make sure we have a greater level of comfort that the sex-ed curriculum will be of benefit to the school system," he replied. "My principal focus, though, this fall is going to be highlighting how Ontario can have a prosperous environment for job creation."
I'll be looking to see how politically nimble the Brown-led PCs are. A senior Tim Hudak advisor told me proudly one December how their Question Period strategy for the leader was all mapped out until June.
It meant Hudak was talking about the issues he wanted to raise, but far too often these were not the burning issues that voters were really talking about, or the news media cared about. And that meant Hudak often missed the chance to get on TV screens and give Ontarians a positive impression of him.
I'll also be looking to see how the federal election campaign plays into this sitting of the Legislature.
It's a juicy dynamic: Wynne frequently calling for the defeat of Stephen Harper and campaigning actively for federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau; Brown, a loyal Harper government backbencher for the better part of a decade; and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath dearly hoping to see Tom Mulcair become Prime Minister. But that's a topic for another day, as the federal vote on Oct. 19 draws closer.