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Can Patrick Brown fix the Ontario PCs?

By Randall White 

The Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race had already slimmed down to a field of three a few months ago. But it was still murky. 

Now, with the departure of London area MPP Monte McNaughton on April 9, the home stretch has become a clash between what seem like two clear alternatives.

In one corner is the “establishment" candidate Christine Elliott, 60 years old, MPP for Whitby-Oshawa and Ontario PC Deputy Leader — a fiscal conservative but socially progressive. 

The “outsider" candidate is Patrick Brown, 36 years of age — a social conservative federal MP for Barrie. He is unmarried and bilingual.

The almost exciting thing about the race right now is that he has the momentum. 

On evidence provided by the candidates themselves Mr. Brown has sold more new party memberships (40,000) than Ms. Elliott (34,000). 

Questions about geographic coverage and voter turnout still raise doubts about exactly what will happen on May 3 and 7 when party members old and new cast their ballots. (The results will be announced on Saturday, May 9.) 

Not surprisingly, it has been reported that in the past four Ontario PC leadership contests the candidate who sold the most new memberships won in the end.

A recent poll of PC party members, using publicly available data on PC party donors from the last decade and undertaken by Mainstreet Technologies, has also found Patrick Brown leading with 47%. Christine Elliott, it found, has 41% support. 

Then there was a sizzling Waterloo Region Record editorial recently, headlined “Patrick Brown changes the game.”

It called Brown a "dark horse who has galloped into the spotlight," saying he may change not only the province's PC party, but Ontario itself.

All this lends fresh urgency to a question posed by the Toronto Star last month: “Who is Patrick Walter Brown?”

To start with, he was born in Toronto in 1978, said the story by the Star's Richard Brennan. 

Like such ancient hockey greats as Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay and Frank Mahovlich, he attended the Catholic private academy known as St. Michael’s College School on Bathurst Street in Toronto.

He went on to study political science at the University of Toronto, eventually earning a law degree at the University of Windsor.

Politics appears to be in his blood. His lawyer father once ran for the NDP. His school-teacher mother descends from a Conservative family in Barrie.

The report went on to say Jean Charest’s leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives inspired a teenaged Patrick Brown in the later 1990s. 

Brown was still a university student when first elected to Barrie city council in 2000 and re-elected in 2003 with 72% of the vote. 

In 2004, in his mid 20s, he ran unsuccessfully against Liberal Aileen Carroll for the Barrie federal seat. But when he contested the riding again in 2006 he won, and was re-elected in 2008 and 2011.  

The knock against Brown is that “he hasn't accomplished very much in Ottawa during his nine years as a backbench MP in Stephen Harper's government.”

The negative buzz will no doubt grow louder as the finish line approaches.

Many criticize his social conservatism: in 2012 he voted for a failed private member's bill that might have reopened the abortion debate in Canada.

At the same time, a website called “Canadian Conservatives For Legal Marijuana” underlines Patrick Brown’s almost libertarian view of cannabis. It “does not pose the same dangers as other more serious drugs." He worries that its current status results in "a misuse of law enforcement resources.” 

But at the same time, Mr. Brown has called himself a red Tory. And he has reached out to newer “visible minority” voters in Southern Ontario who share his social conservatism, with some success. 

He has been friends for several years with the new conservative prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.

Mr. Brown’s campaign has won some other intriguing endorsements as well - Paul Godfrey, Wayne Gretzky, Hugh Segal and Devon White. 

He certainly does have enemies. Rob Ford came out for Christine Elliott this past weekend. 

Ontario history suggests that Conservatives in the province have usually done best when they have not been too conservative.

The April 13 editorial in the Waterloo Region Record may nonetheless have landed on the most important point. 

Both final contenders “have demonstrated they can build support for the Conservatives beyond rural Ontario.” 

The editorial went on: “They each represent smaller communities in the 905 area surrounding Toronto. Elliott's centrist policies will play well in cities ... Brown has made important inroads into Sikh and other South Asian communities in suburban cities like Brampton.”

One way or another the Ontario PCs are going to be changing and trying to move ahead regardless of who wins on May 9.




About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : April 23, 2015

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