Kelly McParland: Patrick Brown’s victory plan: stop his own party from screwing up again

This story originally published here.

For a nebbish from nowhere who somehow slipped his way into the leadership of Ontario’s official opposition, Patrick Brown is making some interesting moves.

He’s still invisible to most Ontarians, who couldn’t pick him out of a lineup that consisted of him and Julie Payette. It’s possible that’s not a bad thing, considering it keeps the spotlight on Premier Kathleen Wynne and all the things Ontarians don’t like about her and her 14-year-old government. And Brown appears happy to keep it that way, judging by the rules of engagement he’s set down for the Progressive Conservative Party’s policy conference in November.

It’s the last get-together before the election scheduled for June and Brown wants no Bozo eruptions. Ardent social conservatives are welcome to their opinions — unlike Justin Trudeau, Brown hasn’t banned strongly-held dissenting views from his caucus — but they’re also welcome to keep them to themselves. There is to be no public brawl over abortion, carbon taxes or other trigger topics the Liberals would love to see tear the party to shreds.

In an interview with Canadian Press, Brown unabashedly ruled abortion and same-sex issues off the agenda. “Any policy that attempts to limit a woman’s right to choose or the ability of same-sex couples to marry are off-limits, period,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s even up for consideration when I personally could not defend that or support it.”

Similarly, he’s not about to entertain a debate over carbon policy. His consists of a pledge to cancel Wynne’s cap-and-trade system and replace it with one that returns emissions revenue to taxpayers. This offends the absolutists in the party who insist taxes are the work of the devil and a carbon tax is just another pitchfork in Lucifer’s quiver. Brown waves it aside: “I think there’s a broader understanding in the party … that we are going to take climate change seriously … that we have to do our part on the environment, but it should not be used as a revenue grab by government.”

Taken together, his message to the party is easy to decipher: in the past three elections, Progressive Conservatives largely defeated themselves. If they ever want to win again, they have to stop giving the Liberals easy weapons to beat them with.

Such is the depth of dunderheadedness in some corners of the party that there will likely still be those who want just one more internal act of suicide before retiring from the ring. But Liberals will be even more agitated if Brown manages to make his rules stick. Barely visible under the mountain of baggage they’ve amassed for themselves, they badly need a poorly-run PC campaign if they hope to hold onto office in June. Their own record is an explosive device to be avoided at all costs; they would far prefer to launch personal attacks on Brown, painting him as a social conservative wedded to extremist views.

They’ve been at it for some time, regularly reminding voters that: a) Brown served in Stephen Harper’s caucus; b) he once voted in favour of open debate on abortion; c) while campaigning for leader he sided with angry parents who opposed new sex education guidelines. Brown has sought to counter the campaign, arguing that as a backbench member of Harper’s caucus he stuck with the party line, just as Wynne and Trudeau expect their backbenchers to do. “Now that I’m leader of the party I can much (more) clearly speak from my own heart.” 

Given that one of the first acts of the Wynne government was to absolve itself of all crimes committed under her old boss and Liberal predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, any attempt to blame Brown for the policies of Stephen Harper would be a bit rich. Not that Liberals won’t try.

Brown’s approach appears to be one of unabashed pragmatism. The Tories won’t win as long as they insist on paddling against the current of public opinion. They can be offended by abortion rights and tax grabs all they want, but if the voting population has broadly accepted them as done deals, it’s time to move on. 

Brown deftly avoided one recent Liberal trap, which once again sought to use abortion as a wedge. When it became known Wynne’s government planned to legislate safety zones around abortion clinics, hoping against hope that someone in the Tories would attack them for it, Brown instead moved to make the vote unanimous. In the end the Liberals were the ones with mud on their faces, after they rejected his proposal in pique that their ambush had failed.   

Some might call Brown’s approach opportunistic. The opportunity is certainly there. The Liberals have failed to drag themselves from the bottom of recent polls — one showed 44 per cent of those in the Liberals’ Toronto stronghold are yearning for a change — despite months of spending promises and feel-good announcements. Two of her most senior cabinet ministers, both Wynne loyalists, announced they won’t seek re-election. 

Brown likes to point out that party membership, barely 10,000 when he took over, is now 127,000. So someone must agree with his approach. The Liberals hope that in the eight months until the election, they’ll find a way to change those minds. Brown hopes that, for once, he can keep his party from giving them a hand with it.

National Post

This story originally published here.

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