Moments before I began writing this, Barrie MP Patrick Brown won the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, which has not held power at Queen’s Park since the fall of 2003.
I met Brown early this year, listened to him speak and was impressed with what I heard. I was seriously considering joining the party to support him. There can be no doubt that he’s an intelligent guy who breathes politics.
And I believe that he has intractable problems that are going to cause the party to lose their fifth straight election.
First, he doesn’t have a seat in the legislature, and there’s no serious prospect that he’ll have one for at least a year.
Like it or not, the overwhelming majority of the caucus supported Brown’s rival, Christine Elliott. Because of the bloodbath of last year’s provincial election, they all have fairly safe seats. The leader of the Official Opposition does not have the perks of government with which to persuade a member to surrender his or her seat. All he has are the leader’s office and party headquarters, both of which will presumably be staffed with Brown campaign loyalists.
It took former leader John Tory months in 2009 to open up Laurie Scott’s riding for what turned out to be a doomed run. Even if Brown can secure a riding nomination for himself quickly, Premier Wynne has six months to call a by-election. There is every reason to believe that she will wait as long as she can before doing so. As far as media coverage goes, if you’re not at Queen’s Park, you don’t exist.
Second and most important, Brown’s positions on social issues will create the Liberals campaign narrative for them.
After seeing Brown speak in January, I did some googling to find out if he was too good to be true. Within seconds I found out that he had cast votes in Ottawa to reopen the debates on both abortion and same-sex marriage, and he did so against the explicit wishes of Prime Minister Harper.
Brown has refused to say whether he cast those votes because he believed in them, or because he was pandering to the religious right. Neither answer does him any favours with the moderate Ontario electorate.
I’ve been told by several Brown supporters that those votes are irrelevant because, as federal issues, there’s little that a premier can do about them. Wrong. You can cause all manner of mischief through OHIP funding and provincial family law. I’m five-eighths retarded, and I could figure that out. Therefore, so can the Ontario Liberals, who enjoy a well-deserved reputation for being smart, well-financed and incredibly mean.
It matters not at all if Patrick Brown intends to do anything on the abortion and gay marriage files, the Liberals just have to convince enough voters that he will.
On that, Kathleen Wynne has the powerful precedent of Stephen Harper to rely on. More than anyone else in Canadian history, Harper has mastered the art of pre-writ negative advertising. He’s carpet-bombed three consecutive federal Liberal leaders that way. Will the Ontario PC’s have any credibility at all protesting that after “Not a Leader” and “Just Visiting”? I somehow doubt it.
Regardless of your opinion of her, it’s important to recognize that Wynne is a gifted strategic politician. She should have lost last year to either the Tories or the NDP, but she beat both back in a campaign that I believe will be studied for generations. No one should underestimate her ability to win against tough odds ever again.
In the coming weeks and months, I expect hundreds of thousands of dollars of negative ads painting Patrick Brown as a troglodyte; and without a seat, a platform to defend himself, or money to do it with, Brown will be as helpless as Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were. If a politician is negatively defined early enough, it’s almost impossible for him or her to rehabilitate them.
It’s an obvious strategy for the Wynne Liberals, and one that I believe will work.
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