Ontario PCs’ Patrick Brown-out

As if the demise of leader Patrick Brown, who seemed poised to lead the party to a majority, wasn’t bad enough, now the Ontario PCs are self-destructing right before our eyes. 

The bloodletting continued with the resignation of Progressive Conservative party president and Brown confidante Rick Dykstra over his own sexual misconduct allegations.

The situation went from bad to ridiculous on Monday, January 29 when Doug Ford (the pariah in the party who won’t go away) called a press conference to announce he’s putting aside his run for mayor (at least for now) to take a shot of his own at the PC leadership. 

Such is the state of the PCs. Ford described a party in “complete disarray.” That would be an understatement. 

Now Vic Fedeli, the man chosen by the PC caucus to replace Brown as interim leader in a not-so-veiled coup attempt before the party executive stepped in to order a leadership convention, has announced he won’t be seeking the permanent leadership of the party after all.

He’ll be turning his attention instead to righting the finances of the party amid allegations of inappropriate spending reportedly by Brown to fend off legal challenges to a number of hotly contested nomination battles – including in Hamilton where police are investigating charges of voter fraud. Turns out the nearly 200,000 members Brown said he signed up to the party since he took over three years ago may be a mirage. 

In announcing his withdrawal, Fedeli said the PCs “have to be able to show the people of Ontario we can govern.” 

Clearly, that’s becoming an issue.

Who knew what and when?

It’s easy to forget in the current upheaval, but Brown took over a party that was beset by factional infighting, which is largely how he was able to enlist connections in the South Asian community – developed through ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to take over.

Brown got a little help from social conservatives. And it seemed to work for a while, as Brown was riding high in the polls. But that lofty standing in public opinion only served to paper over his tenuous grip on power.

The signs of the coming reckoning were all there. Entire riding associations have quit over his personal interference in nomination races. His break with so-cons over his flip-flop on the sex ed curriculum ended with Brown’s pal Dykstra getting bounced for the party nomination in Niagara West-Glanbrook by Christian conservative Sam Oosterhoff. 

So when it surfaced late last Wednesday night that CTV was about to air sexual misconduct allegations against Brown – one involving a former staffer while Brown was a backbencher in Stephen Harper’s government, another 10 years ago involving a woman who says she was in high school at the time – it wasn’t a complete surprise that some of his top advisors, bolted for the exits. 

Most of them had been recruited from the ranks of different factions in the party and never really felt any affinity for Brown, which is why Brown’s messy ouster looks to some like a coup that had long been simmering. 

Who’s behind it?

A number of theories have been floated. Most of those involve either the Liberals or the media, but what about traitors in PC ranks? What did they know about the allegations against Brown and when did they know it? And why didn’t they do anything about it? 

Opportunists in the PC caucus

Brown’s corpse wasn’t even cold before Fedeli was on CFRB radio to say he knew nothing about the allegations against Brown, which was an entirely different story than the one he told cameras after he was chosen interim leader. There, he pronounced himself “disgusted,” before saying it would be best for everyone involved if Brown took a leave of absence. 

Lisa MacLeod, another potential Brown successor, said on Friday that she told PC party higher-ups about unspecified rumours circulating about Brown months ago. Only it didn’t quite go down like that. MacLeod only talked to a volunteer in the Brown campaign (former Harper director of communications Dimitri Soudas) that Eric Lindros (yes, the famous hockey player) told her about rumours about Brown. 

It’s also no secret Brown’s alleged exploits with young women not old enough to drink reportedly date back to his days as a backbencher in Ottawa under Harper. Which is why, or so the theory goes, Harper never saw fit to give Brown a meaningful job – he couldn’t risk the exposure that might come with revelations. 

In fact, the Queen’s Park press gallery had been chasing that story ever since Brown’s arrival on that scene, including a thread to Brown’s frequent trips to India (as well as the suggestion Brown might be gay). The Star had reportedly been on the CTV story a year ago but was shy about pulling the trigger because the women involved would not identify themselves publicly. 

The saviour and the heir apparent

The leadership has become a poisoned chalice. Fedeli’s departure from the leadership contest was followed by news that Monte McNaughton, the so-con who crowned Brown in 2015, is also out of the running. 

So far there seems only pretenders to the crown. None of them are sitting MPPs.

Besides Ford, there’s Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips.

Mulroney’s name has come up among those in the party who believe it’s time for a woman to assume the reins. But she has little in the way of political experience, is the offspring of one of the most unpopular PMs in Canadian history and has been living in the U.S. until recently.

Then there’s Phillips, the former Mel Lastman crony and Mike Harris Common Sense revolutionary who was being groomed for a future run anyway. His political resumé includes the dubious distinction that he has been firmly in the pocket of Post Media honcho Paul Godfrey. 

People’s Guarantee, not so much

There has been a lot of rhetoric from prospective successors about “taking back” the party now that Brown is gone. 

To be sure, there’s a significant number who will tell you that Brown’s more immigrant-and gay-friendly incarnation of the PCs does not reflect the party’s historical base. And they’d be right. That’s because the PC grassroots has been represented by a 29-member caucus made of mostly white men from rural Ontario since Harris was tossed. And most of them can barely conceal their unease with Brown’s People’s Guarantee, the campaign platform released with much fanfare in November that marked a political shift to the centre. 

To a person, PC party MPPs and candidates and higher-ups say the new leader, whoever that is, will be campaigning on the document. 

But it’s not just the so-cons who felt spurned by Brown. Fiscal conservatives who have described the platform as Liberal lite are freaked about the document’s talk of running deficits. The climate change deniers in party ranks, meanwhile, had been circulating a petition to dump Brown over his proposal to replace the Liberals’ cap and trade emissions regime with a carbon tax. 

Not ready for prime time

Some pundits and PC party insiders have offered that Brown’s ouster is a blessing in disguise for the PCs. Liberal campaign manager David Herle has joined that chorus describing Brown as a weak candidate.

Other PCs have tried to present Brown’s demise as a “hiccup” on the way to power – as deputy leader Sylvia Jones termed it at a press conference last week before catching herself. 

But no one could have imagined how quickly things would unravel from there. 

Brown’s exit has exposed the party’s deep divisions as well as an internal infrastructure that’s in shambles, which for voters will raise serious questions about whether the party is ready to govern.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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