Patrick Brown, until recently the leader of the opposition in Ontario, Canada, has thrown his party into a tailspin by kicking off a series of scandals. Now, just months before the provincial general election in June, his Ontario Progressive Conservative Party has to find a way to recover without him.
#MeToo comes to Canadian politics
The day after the story of two women accusing Brown of inappropriate sexual conduct when they were both teens broke, most of his key staff resigned. At hastily called late-night press conference at Queen’s Park the following day on January 24th, it became clear Brown was finished. With his voice shaking, he denied the allegations. But as he did so further members of his team were simultaneously tweeting their resignations. The press conference ended with media chasing Patrick Brown down the stairs, with a hunted look on the beleaguered leader’s face. He resigned the following morning.
Vic Fedeli inherited the role of interim leader of the Progressive Conservatives, and at first it was widely assumed Fedeli would stay on through the election in June against the unpopular Liberal Party provincial government. But then, PC party president (and ally of Patrick Brown) Rick Dykstra announced there would be a snap leadership election in March. A bold move, but perhaps just the right thing to make a clean break with Brown’s scandal.
More chaos ensues
Two days after Patrick Brown’s resignation, Dykstra himself was caught up in a sex scandal and forced to resign. The alleged incidents occurred while he was an MP in Ottawa for the federal-level Conservative Party. Conservative party bosses became aware in 2015 of an allegation that he had assaulted a young staffer, considered dropping him from their candidate lineup in the election, but then decided not to. Dykstra lost his seat, but moved into the presidency of the provincial-level Progressive Conservative Party as a fallback.
Now bereft of their party leader and party president, the PCs could soon be facing a possible disaster in the June election that until recently they had been the odds-on favourites to win.
Surely it could not get any worse.
It gets worse
A few weeks prior to his resignation, Patrick Brown had proudly announced that the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party had passed the 200,000 member level – an impressive figure, especially considering that the ruling Ontario Liberal Party have only about a tenth as many members.
Now with a party leadership vote by these same dues-paying members scheduled, the membership list is coming under increasing scrutiny. And it appears Brown’s claims were vastly inflated.
According to Canada’s National Post, the true membership figure is closer to 130,000. The Post quoted a party insider as saying, “The membership number was likely inflated for communications purposes. We’re not going to defend the actions of the previous administration … Now people have the facts.”
The PCs still have a party membership several times that of the Liberals, but revising the number downwards by 70,000 only reaffirms the impression that they are in meltdown. If they manage a nice quiet leadership election, perhaps the new leader can quickly set things back on course.
Enter the Populist – Doug Ford
Three candidates have entered the leadership race so far, and none appear to posses the authority or temperament to put the PCs back into a stable position. But one candidate appears certain to prevent a nice quiet leadership race.
Christine Elliot, a former MPP, is making her third attempt for the Ontario PC leadership. Caroline Mulroney is the daughter of previous Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, but is otherwise a political neophyte. Two standard candidates, and with a great family history and name-recognition, Mulroney would be the establishment favorite.
But then there is Doug Ford, a former Toronto city councillor and brother of one of Canada’s notorious politicians. While serving as mayor of Toronto, the late Rob Ford, who made international headlines for problems related to substance abuse. Now his more disciplined but equally populist brother has thrown his hat into the ring.
Doug Ford may not have courted controversy as much as his brother did, but he is expected to throw the PC leadership election into turmoil. He’s already announced he is running to take power from “the elites,” who he says do not want him to run. It is not at all clear if Ford would support the current PC campaign platform, which includes a somewhat controversial proposal for a new carbon tax.
Patrick Brown – unrepentant
Meanwhile, despite the highly credible allegations against him, Patrick Brown continues to insist on his innocence. Although no longer leader, he is still a serving MPP. The fact that the PC has stopped paying rent on his downtown Toronto condo, and that this made headlines in the papers, indicates that Brown’s unresolved status will continue to haunt the PC, and whoever the new leader is, for months to come.
Although founded in 1864, there is no reason to think the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party will survive an endless run of scandals and mishaps. Right-of center political parties, whether at the federal or provincial levels, have been in fairly constant churn in Canada since the old federal Progressive Conservatives were nearly wiped out in the 1993 election. Is this an existential threat for the Ontario PCs? A lot hangs on the current leadership race.