New Tory leader must move quickly to build bridges

The dust has settled on the two-person race to elect a new leader for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party with newcomer Patrick Brown handily unhorsing the party establishment favourite Christine Elliott in the lists by both signing up more new members and, even more importantly, bringing more voters to the poll than his opponent. The party made the announcement this past Saturday sending reverberations through the ranks of the more venerable.

Ms. Elliott had a massive lead amongst the party’s sitting MPPs, with 25 of the 28 members of congress huddling under her banner, but Mr. Brown enlisted the ranks of social conservative interest groups and diverse ethnic communities who were more likely to go to the polls, signing up 40,000 new members.

Mr. Brown was the first to come to Manitoulin Island seeking support and it can likely be said that he was first at many Northern ridings. Under the 100 point per riding voting system that modified the universal vote process, his strategy of not accepting that any riding was unwinnable proved sound.

But in the aftermath of the leadership battle, Mr. Brown now has a legacy perception as an extreme right-winger and social conservative to overcome if he wants to build a winning coalition needed to take back the province for the Progressive Conservatives.

In his interview published in The Expositor following his visit to the Island, Mr. Brown made little reference to the social conservative agenda with which his associations, and the alarm bells being sounded by his opponents, painted him. In fact, Mr. Brown portrayed himself as a bridge builder seeking to reengage those constituencies that had previously been bulwarks of Progressive Conservative support.

Mr. Brown, a career politician and backbench MP for Barrie in the Harper government, proved conclusively that he is not only a tireless and focussed worker, but a canny strategist, at least on a tactical level during the leadership contest. He will need all of those skills and more if he is to build a viable electoral coalition and convince the electorate that he is not the wild-eyed demagogue his opponents have painted him to be.

Luckily for Mr. Brown, he has plenty of time in which to build that coalition. His first order of business, of course, will be to find a seat in the legislature from which to lead his party. That should prove an easy fix, as several current MPPs have indicated a willingness to step aside for the new leader.

He has already begun building bridges to the party establishment that backed his opponent, wisely keeping the current interim leader in place and indicating he has no short term plans to shake up his party’s current critic lineup.

The challenge of building the new electoral coalition he envisioned in his conversation with The Expositor will also be made easier by the difficult path ahead for the governing Liberals of Premier Kathleen Wynne. In their latest budget, the Liberals have indicated that there will be no net increases available to most public servants as they attempt to wrestle a persistent deficit to the ground before the next election.

Previous PC leader Tim Hudak severely damaged relations with the police and health care workers, as well as the rest of the powerful public servant cadre, when he announced his 100,000 job cut plan in the last provincial election. But the dial may be reset on that score with the general perception of Mr. Brown as an outsider, free from obvious linkages to the architects of that ill-fated policy.

Mr. Brown was clever in recognizing that the policy statements and platform planks were largely irrelevant in securing the road to the leadership, leaving a relatively blank slate before him as he faces the next four years in opposition.

It is often said that parties are tossed out of power rather than elected, as the voters invariably become increasingly disenchanted with those whose hands are on the levers of power. The caveat being that the alternative must not be so scary that the status quo seems a safer path at the ballot box.

Although Liberals may be licking their collective chops at the prospect of facing someone who has been described as being to the right of Mr. Hudak and his mentor Mike Harris, they would be well advised to avoid the hubris of underestimating Mr. Brown. Ms. Elliott and her supporters learned that the hard way.

The key description Mr. Brown used for himself contained the word “pragmatic” and if recent events are to prove any guide, he will be a much more formidable opponent than Mr. Hudak proved to be. We may well hope that description proves to be the case and that Mr. Brown begins to reel in the less palatable instincts of those groups that brought him within reach of power. This may well prove to be one of those rare instances when one is best served by not dancing with the one who brought you.