The Ontario PC leadership race just got very, very messy

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Ontario PC leadership election

When Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party just a few months before the June Ontario elections it was a shock to the Canadian political system. Now, a few weeks after he was drummed out of the party he once led, he has decided to enter the Ontario PC leadership election that was called to replace him.

Things are about to get very, very messy in Ontario.

Canada’s #MeToo

Patrick Brown down the stairs
Patrick Brown descending stairs at Queen’s Park following a press conference, pursued by journalists.

In late January two women who had worked as staffers for Patrick Brown in their teens came forward with sexual misconduct allegations by the Ontario PC leader. Although Brown had largely rebuilt the party he was then heading, including a huge serge in grassroots membership, he quickly came under intense pressure to resign. Following a late-night press conference at Queen’s Park, which ended with him being chased down a staircase by a pack of journalists, he succumbed to that pressure the following day.

Canada’s Come-back kid

Despite the swirl of accusations and his resignation, Brown continued to insist that he had done nothing wrong. In recent weeks he has engineered a massive public relations push to rehabilitate himself, and this was followed by an announcement that he himself would seek to win the Ontario PC leadership election that was triggered by his resignation.

As of late last night, the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership committee has given him the green light to do just that.

Four other candidates have already entered the race ahead of Brown: Caroline Mulroney (daughter of the former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney), Christine Elliott (a previous candidate for the leadership), Doug Ford (brother of the controversial Toronto mayor, the late Rob Ford) and Tanya Granic Allen (a campaigner against sex education in schools). It is a crowded field, and Ford in particular is able to call upon a long-standing populist political machine.

Expect all hell to break loose.

The impossible dilemma for the Ontario PC Party

The potential for disaster for the Ontario PC party is absolutely massive.

Before his resignation, the smart money was on Patrick Brown winning the upcoming Ontario General Election on June 7. The Ontario Liberal Party has been in charge at Queen’s Park since 2003 and had been flagging in recent polls. Brown’s scandal and resignation, followed by a snap leadership election for the PCs, suddenly made the expected win over the Liberals a lot less certain.

But Brown’s return possibly makes a return to power for the Ontario PC Party even less likely.

Now, instead of the leadership election being about the future leader of the Progressive Conservatives, all the talk will be about the former leader. Brown still insists on his innocence, and nothing will likely be proven conclusively before June. Whether or not he can still effectively lead the party effectively will dominate discussion.

Brown’s appropriateness as a leader has been called into further question by additional allegations that have emerged since his resignation. The publicly quoted party membership figures surges under Brown do not appear to be quite as big as Brown had claimed. And the Globe and Mail have reported on some questionable business dealings with a Ontario PC candidate.

And it gets worse…

However inappropriate it might seem for Brown to resume the Ontario PC leadership, his rivals cannot dismiss him as a threat.

The Ontario PC membership figures may not be as large as Brown had claimed, but they had still grown significantly under his leadership. Most Ontario PC members joined the party under Brown’s leadership, and so may therefore be loyal to him.

Also, the platform the Ontario PCs will be running on in June, known as the People’s Guarantee, was written under Brown’s leadership. A central, and controversial, component is a carbon tax, which each of Brown’s four opponents have distances themselves from. This makes Brown  the only candidate to lead the party who actually supports the party’s election platform.

Awkward.

Brown has one other advantage. The Ontario PC leadership race is designed to ensure that a leader has support across the entire province. Doug Ford has a massive power-base in Toronto, where he sat on the city council, but he cannot win without getting support from rural areas where he has less support. Likewise, the three other candidates lacked province-wide support at the start of the campaign.

The great Ontario PC hope

Despite the problems with the People’s Guarantee, the best hope for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives is undoubtedly that Patrick Brown be decisively defeated. This would allow an untainted candidate to run against the Ontario Liberals in June.

Although the other candidates might split the anti-Brown vote in the initial round, the Ontario PC leadership race also asks voters for their second choice candidate. These are used to generate an instant run-off result. Current thinking is Brown may win the first choice votes, but will get very few second choice votes.

At least, that’s what the Ontario PC Party higher ups must be hoping.

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