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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leadership: Family Ties, But Will They Bind?

Published on
February 12, 2018

Now that the rules are in place, dates are known, and candidates have begun to step forward, we thought this would be a good time to provide you with an update about the goings on in the Ontario PC Party and their process to select the person who could potentially be the next Premier of Ontario.  As long as the Party themselves didn’t know what they were doing, in the wake of Patrick Brown’s resignation, we didn’t see the value of writing to tell you what they were going to do. That made sense to us.  But since the Party continues to be in a state of disarray, waiting doesn’t seem like it will get us any closer to a point of things being buttoned down. So here you have it.

First, the leadership field. To date three main candidates have declared they are running, while one or two other cause candidates may enter and a bunch who were speculated about have announced they are not. The three candidates—Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney, and Doug Ford have a few things in common. Namely:

-None of them are currently sitting MPPs. 
-All of them are from, or would contest the election in, the Greater Toronto Area.
-Each has had a family member who held high elected office.
-After entering the race, all have said they do not support a tax on carbon, notwithstanding what the “People’s Guarantee” PC platform, released in November, says on the subject.

Of the three, only Mulroney is a nominated candidate (York Simcoe).  Ford has pledged to run as the PC candidate in Etobicoke North, currently held by Liberal Shafiq Qaadri.  Elliott’s seat, vacated when she left provincial politics, was subsequently filled in a by-election by PC MPP Lorne Coe; therefore, Elliot will have to contest another riding.  Remember, redistribution has meant the number of seats in the Ontario Legislature will increase from 107 to 124 in the next election.

Christine Elliott is the only one of the three who has been a PC MPP and has conducted a leadership campaign before.  In fact, she has done so twice, losing to Tim Hudak the first time and subsequently to Patrick Brown.  During that latter contest, Elliott had the most support from the PC caucus, along with many of the prominent backroom names in the PC party (aka the glitterati—every party has those).  Brown, who had been a federal MP and had very little provincial caucus support, rounded up a network of friends and supporters, went out and signed up thousands of new party members, and won the contest handily.  In a one member, one vote system (no delegates to be traded or brokered like at a traditional convention), Brown’s approach was smart and his victory inevitable.  Note to file: you don’t win leadership contests by having meetings around the board room table in a law firm.  You go out and do the work.

Not surprisingly, Elliott has, so far, rounded up the most support from the existing PC caucus. As of this writing, nine PC MPPs have declared for Elliott, as have five nominated PC candidates.  Mulroney has the declared support of five sitting MPPs but significantly, 14 nominated candidates have come out in her favour.  Doug Ford has the declared support of one Scarborough PC MPP (Raymond Cho) and two nominated candidates. 

Does this make Ford a dark horse, or underdog?  Not at all. History has taught us that support of caucus does not determine winners in any party.  As mentioned above, it did not deliver a victory for Christine Elliott. On the Liberal side, Sandra Pupatello had more caucus support than Kathleen Wynne did in the last Liberal leadership contest.  Wynne went on to triumph anyway.

What does one make of the Ford candidacy? While it is easy for urban, progressive voters to be dismissive of Ford and his approach, there are a few points worth bearing in mind.

First, the Ford approach, specifically with brother Rob, won the mayoralty of Toronto in 2010—the city where the Ontario PCs have been essentially shut out since Mike Harris was Premier.

Secondly, Doug Ford, running in a field that included heavyweights John Tory and Olivia Chow, received 331,000 votes in his 2014 run to be Toronto’s mayor, compared to Tory’s 395,000 and Chow’s 227,000.  This cannot be overlooked.  In fact, Ford received the most votes in 20 of Toronto’s 44 wards in that race. There are parts of Toronto that has voted Liberal for 20+ years federally and provincially, and voted for Doug Ford for mayor, mostly in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough.

Outside of Toronto, and remember, only PC party members get to vote on who the next leader is, one can reasonably expect that Ford’s brand of right wing populism, which taps into the sentiment that the government and other elites don’t listen and don’t care about their concerns, can reasonably be expected to hit a nerve. Ford knows this and made sure to emphasize that the elites in the PC party don’t want him in the race when he announced his candidacy. Some day we’ll write something on Bernier Sanders and left-wing populism, but not now.

So, we are treating the Ford candidacy seriously, and suggest that you do as well.   

Not surprisingly, Elliott has been emphasizing experience and readiness, while Mulroney and her supporters talk about generational change.  Remember that this will be a preferential ballot, where party members vote for their first, second and third choices.  So you can expect a degree of civility here; there is nothing to be gained by viciously attacking an opponent and alienating their supporters who you might need on a later ballot.

Speaking of PC party members, we were taken aback by interim PC Leader Vic Fedeli (Nipissing), not because he isn’t pursuing the permanent leadership, as much as he may have wanted to, but rather when he announced he would be spending time “rooting out the rot” in the party’s internal workings.  Soon after, it came to light that of the 200,000 or so party memberships that Patrick Brown had talked about, some 73,000 were not legitimate. While having 127,000 members is nothing for a provincial party to sneeze at, these announcements do have a destabilizing effect and hurt morale among party rank and file. A couple of days later, some questions have been raised about certain nomination meetings that have already taken place, suggesting we may be in line for a couple of do overs.  Almost predictably, two nomination meetings have indeed been declared irregular (Scarborough Centre and Ottawa West-Nepean) and will in fact have to do it all again.

No matter who wins this leadership race on March 10th, he or she will have no time to bask in victory or rest.  The election period begins two months later, and the provincial vote is on June 7th. Other dates of interest include:

February 15: leadership candidates debate; second debate to be scheduled.

February 16: deadline for candidates to file nomination papers; deadline for candidates to pay registration fees and compliance deposit. Deadline to become a member a member of the party and be eligible to vote.

February 23: deadline for candidates to withdraw their names from the ballot.

March 2-8: voting period.  Online voting to be used.

March 10: votes counted and results announced.

From the Liberal perspective, all of the planning and war room strategies that were in place to face Patrick Brown are no longer useful. While you might expect the governing party to be rubbing their hands in glee over their primary opponents’ turmoil, life didn’t necessarily get a whole lot easier.  For example, Brown had built a big lead for the PCs in public opinion polling, but the data showed he was not connecting well with women voters—an area the Liberals could capitalize on. Some Liberals felt that Brown’s voting record on social issues while he was a federal MP under Stephen Harper was another area of advantage. This too is no more. You can rest assured that the Liberal campaign, which is run by some pretty smart people, is watching and listening to the PC leadership race very closely in addition to conducting extensive research on the three contenders. Like the PCs, the Liberals do not have the luxury of time after the PC leadership race concludes. As for the NDP, early pundit commentary after the Brown resignation included speculation that Andrea Horwath and her party would benefit most from Tory turmoil and sagging Liberal polling numbers. 

Remarkably, it doesn’t appear to be the case. Those pollsters that who have released new numbers do not indicate a surge in NDP support. Nor do they show the PCs tanking or Premier Wynne’s approval numbers significantly improving. Our advice would be that until the PC leadership process is concluded, polls should be taken with a grain of salt. While there is some variance on which potential new PC leader would fare best with all voters, advantage Elliott, remember that voters will not select the next leader; only PC party members will. We’ll have to keep an eye on this part of things too.

The Ontario GR team at Sussex is watching this race closely. We’ll be discussing these and other topics on our weekly online Ontario Election Show every Friday at noon. Tune in for more insights.

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Joseph Ragusa
Principal
A founding partner of Sussex, Joseph has been a Principal at the firm since its inception in 1998. With over 30 years of experience in government, consulting, and politics.
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