For pretty much a quarter century — ever since Mike Harris became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in 1990 — the province's conservatives have planted their flag firmly on the right side of the political spectrum.
Yes, there were occasional respites from this. Most notably, John Tory tried to moderate the party's right-wing urges in 2007, without success. After that, his successor, Tim Hudak, promptly marched the party back to the hard right and lost two more elections. The party has now lost four straight.
But there were signs at the party’s GTA Leader’s Dinner Wednesday night that new leader Patrick Brown may be trying to cobble back together a more moderate conservative formula, which so successfully kept the PCs in power from 1943 to 1985.
Two things were particularly noteworthy about Brown’s speech at the dinner. First was its location. For years, the Tories have rented the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for a Toronto Leader’s Dinner, which attracted a decent business crowd. But, of course, the city itself has been a wasteland for the Progressive Conservatives for four consecutive general elections, during which the PCs haven't won a single “416” seat. Wednesday marked the first GTA Leader’s Dinner since the Harris years. In his speech, Brown clearly pointed out why he decided to hold a Leader's Dinner in Brampton:
“You will never win a majority government in this province unless you win seats in Peel,” he said (Brampton, of course, being one of the cities in Peel Region). Brown then pointed out he intended to do just that in two years, five months, and 27 days — the date he predicts the next Ontario election will take place. (The government has signalled plans to schedule the next election in spring 2018, but the office of Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said yesterday that no specific date has been set.)
But second, Brown then added he wanted his first Leader's Dinner to be in Brampton because the Flower City was home to Bill Davis, perhaps the most successful Progressive Conservative premier ever. Davis was the longest-serving Ontario premier of the 20th century, winning four elections starting in 1971, and no doubt could have won a fifth had he not retired at the top of his game in 1985.
Davis's style of pragmatic Red Toryism had been on the outs during the Harris and Hudak years. While Harris served as a backbencher in Davis' 1981 majority government and respected Davis' accomplishments, Hudak and his team never had time for Davis' bland approach and, frankly, the feeling was mutual. Davis never had warm fuzzy feelings for Hudak's scorch-the-earth kind of conservatism either. In fact, when TVO honoured Davis at its gala dinner a few years back, Davis gently, but publicly, chided Hudak for the complete lack of moderation in any of his policies.
Brown appears to be taking a very different approach. He mentioned Davis's name 11 times in his speech the other night. He talked about health care and education, two subjects the Tories have downplayed in recent years, figuring those issues were only winners for the Liberals. Brown has apparently decided the Tories actually need to have something relevant to say about those subjects, which again is a change in philosophy. He even said he wanted to create a French-language university in Ontario, even though the Liberals hold almost every “Francophone seat” in the province.
It's not the only stereotype the Brown Conservatives are busting. The former party of Hudak, which wanted to privatize the LCBO, casinos, and lotteries, is now opposing even the partial privatization of Hydro One — the same position the NDP is taking. And rather than taking an “oppose everything at all costs” approach, Brown is actually giving credit where he feels it's due.
“I stand by my commitment that where an idea, a solution, is in the best interests of Ontario, I will support it, because there is no monopoly on a good idea,” he said. “We support our first responders in their call for faster treatment of PTSD — an NDP initiative. We applauded the Liberal government’s work to break down interprovincial trade barriers.”
Brown's Tories still have their problems. Notwithstanding Wednesday's dinner, which attracted 400 supporters at $1,000 a plate, the party is still carrying a lot of debt on its books. And if many Canadians thought Justin Trudeau, at age 43, was too young to be a first minister, Brown, at age 37, has even more people wondering whether he's seasoned enough for prime time.
The good news for Brown is he doesn't have to be ready today. In fact, he doesn't have to be for somewhere around two years, five months, and (now) 25 days.
Image credit: Twitter/@brownbarrie
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