Depending on the poll of the day, Patrick Brown’s Progressive Conservatives have a lead of somewhere between 10 and 20 points. The party is the odds-on favourite to form government, and any columnist warning about possible trouble should start off by acknowledging that he’s squinting hard to find a problem in a picture that is, overall, pretty rosy. Yes, the Tories have squandered leads under previous leaders, but since their election in 2003 the Liberals haven't been this far back in the polls for this long.
But the last few months of 2016 were not uniformly great for the Tories, either, with the party’s social conservative wing a recurring thorn in Brown’s side. An abbreviated list of tensions: the Scarborough–Rouge River byelection, in which the Tory candidate won handily despite Brown’s office issuing, then hastily retracting, a letter promising to undo Liberal changes to the province’s health and sexual-education curriculum; 19-year-old sex-ed opponent Sam Oosterhoff’s subsequent win in Niagara West–Glanbrook, defeating two party stalwarts on his way to the nomination; and MPP Rick Nicholls telling a group of social conservatives “We need to form government. Then, watch us go!” All of these undermined Brown’s attempts to distance himself and the party from its more reactionary elements.
Brown’s other problem is lingering discontent over his embrace of carbon pricing as a means of fighting climate change. As the Toronto Star’s Paul Wells noted last week, self-identifying Tories continue to be skeptical about that stance — resistance that flared up recently online, but is also still lingering from the party’s annual meeting in Ottawa last year.
Patrick Brown’s project, since winning the PC leadership, has been to drag the party's public image back to the centre of Ontario politics while largely avoiding any detailed policy development, leaving that for the party membership later this year. His public centrism has been frustrating for Liberals, who rail about his hard-right past as a federal MP under Stephen Harper. That’s the Liberals’ problem. Brown’s problem is that at least some parts of his coalition don’t particularly like the centre and resent being pushed toward it.
Tory MPPs who spoke with TVO.org on condition of anonymity say there isn’t really a problem in the party’s ranks. The stories that consume the news cycle in Toronto aren’t resonating, they say, at the riding level. The party, they say, remains focused on the high cost of electricity and other pocketbook issues — which they’re confident the next election will be fought over.
(There’s a small mystery for some Tories, about why the hydro price issue exploded in 2016, even though both opposition parties had been railing against Liberal energy policies for years to little effect. One credited a series by Global Television over the summer, and the ensuing byelection win in Scarborough–Rouge River, with finally cementing the issue in the public consciousness.)
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Whatever the unwelcome friction between Brown and certain segments of his party, there’s no evidence yet of any serious fall in the polls. Voters either aren’t paying attention to the flare-ups from the social conservative and anti-environmental parts of the PC coalition, or have so tired of more than a decade of Liberal government they’re willing to take the chance anyway.
Amusingly, the Tories may be able to placate both the political centre and their anti-carbon-price wing thanks to help from an unexpected corner: that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Ontario’s cap-and-trade system came into effect on Jan. 1, and Brown pledged to repeal it should his party win in 2018. But due to the federal carbon tax announced last year — it will kick in for any province that doesn’t have its own carbon price, with the money remitted to that province — the Tories don’t actually need to propose a replacement. They can accept the political reality that there will be a carbon price set from Ottawa, let the money come into Queen’s Park’s coffers, and offer nominal support to the idea of a carbon price while (some cynicism, here) letting the federal Liberals take the heat for it.
The next test of whether Brown can herd the various elements of his party in one direction without any really public embarrassments will come later this year, as the party develops its policy platform for the 2018 election. Brown was elected leader in part on a pledge to make sure party members had clear and direct input into the policy process. That should prevent a repeat of 2014, when members felt they were forced to defend a platform they’d had no role in forming. But it also carries the obvious risk that particularly vocal and well-organized elements in the party could put a measure into the platform that would embarrass their leader. (Reporters speculate about this semi-frequently and it rarely comes to pass, but after Oosterhoff’s upset win last year it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.)
Brown and the Tories are already well positioned to have a good 2017. If Brown can keep the divisions within his party from erupting in public too many more times, he'll have a better than even chance of having an even better 2018.
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