The deadline has passed for signing up new Ontario Progressive Conservative party members who will be eligible to cast a preferential ballot in the one-member, one-vote election on May 9.
Early reports following the cut-off are far from encouraging when one considers that, in the past, the winning PC leadership candidates have been the ones who sold the most party memberships.
Consider that, in this leadership contest, new members will outnumber “old” members by about six to one. It seems reasonable, therefore, to expect that the candidate who has signed up the most members will have a decided advantage on voting day. For me, this spells bad news indeed as my preferred candidate, MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa), is reported to be well behind federal backbencher, Barrie MP Patrick Brown, in this numbers game.
Apparently, the PC party has fallen short of what I thought was a reasonable goal of 100,000 members—a tenfold increase over the membership roster at the start of the leadership campaign. Early reports claim membership at the cut-off to be 70,000, some 40,000 of which appear to have been sold by Brown, and only about 26,000 by Elliott. (Elliott won’t release her numbers until the party has processed membership forms and eliminated duplicated and disqualified submissions.)
These figures are surprising, to say the least, since Elliott has been the party establishment’s clear choice with the backing of 17 of the 28-member PC caucus at Queen’s Park and 25 federal MPs. Elliott seemed to have the clearest path to victory.
The field of candidates is weak, though, and was so even when MMPs Lisa MacLeod and Vic Fedeli were still in the race.
Monte McNaughton, the least-likely-to-succeed candidate, has little or no appeal outside the relatively small hard-core social conservative members of the party. And Patrick Brown—the only candidate without a seat at Queen’s Park—is a little-known federal backbencher who seems to have accomplished little in his almost 10 years in Ottawa.
From my perspective, as Patrick Brown’s prospects improve, the fortunes of the Ontario PC party declines, for I don’t see how he improves our prospects beyond those we had under Tim Hudak. I find neither McNaughton or him inspiring, nor do I see enough difference between their politics and the past two PC election platforms to give rise to my hope of another Ontario PC government in my lifetime.
What Brown’s supporters see in someone who has accomplished as little in Ottawa as he has is beyond me. Brown has not even committed to running provincially if he loses his leadership bid—at least, he would not commit to do so when asked during the last leaders’ debate. Apparently, this career politician sees his future as either an Ontario legislature frontbencher, i.e., party leader, or he’s prepared to return to relative obscurity as an Ottawa Tory backbencher.
With Christine Elliott I saw hope for real change in the Party’s fortunes. Her politics—at least my perception of them—do differ from Hudak’s. Classic progressive conservatism is supposed to be at the heart of our party’s core beliefs. Why else would party founders have chosen a name that seems to be self-contradictory?
In recent elections, the Ontario PCs have run on a right-wing platform, not even giving lip service to policies that would be consistent with the “progressive” part of its name. And this I believe has been a mistake. As I have written before:
Many famous statesmen—dare I say conservative statesmen—have been proud to have their names associated with progressive conservatism, including Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, David Cameron, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many federal PC prime ministers who represented Canada’s conservative movement prior to Stephen Harper.
“Progressive need not be a dirty word. Nor is—as is claimed by some hard-right conservatives—progressive conservatism an oxymoron. Progressivism may very well be corrosive when deployed by left-wing parties, but that need not be an automatic consequence.”
Being a progressive conservative is not the same as being a Liberal, although a successful political party in Ontario needs to attract votes from both centre-left and centre-right where most Liberals reside on the political spectrum. Nor do we need to be at war with union members and those sympathetic to the union movement, for many union members and sympathisers in the private sector are as upset as other PCs are about overly-generous wages and benefits of their public sector counterparts and want to see some common sense applied.
Ontario’s PC party has become so closely identified with right-wing (rather than centre-right) politics that its members are often referred to in the media simply as “conservatives” as if the federal party and the provincial party were indistinguishable. To be sure, the parties share policies, membership, volunteers, etc., and the federal party—the direct successor of the right-wing populist Reform Party of Canada—has borrowed much from former premier Bill Davis’s progressive conservative style of governing.
I would say, in fact, despite its right-wing reputation in the media, the federal Conservatives govern more like a traditional Canadian-style PC government than did former PC premier Mike Harris or, I suspect, Tim Hudak would have done, judging by Hudak’s two election campaign platforms.
In Christine Elliott, I see a chance to return to a common sense approach with core conservative values informing our fiscal policy and a progressive approach to programs such as health care, education, public transit, mental health and ecology.
That’s my dream, but a dream I fear that is fading with the prospect of a Patrick Brown victory on May 9 followed by eight more years of political irrelevance for our party.