Ontario Conservatives faced with leadership race

Still scrambling from the social media storm that took leader Patrick Brown and then party president Rick Dykstra, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are looking to regroup with an election just five months away. Polls of late had put the party well ahead of the widely unpopular Wynne Liberals, now

Last updated on May 03, 23

Posted on Feb 01, 18

4 min read

Still scrambling from the social media storm that took leader Patrick Brown and then party president Rick Dykstra, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are looking to regroup with an election just five months away.

Polls of late had put the party well ahead of the widely unpopular Wynne Liberals, now the PCs are playing catch-up. They’ve installed Vic Fedeli as interim leader. He said this week he won’t be running for the job when members elect a new leader going into June’s general election.

In remarks critical of his own party, Fedeli said to the media that he wanted to take care of the “rot” within the PC party first, and ensure contenders for the leadership position had a “clean race.”

“It has been a chaotic time for our party,” he said. “I will root out any rot that has manifested itself. All of this needs work and that’s what I intend to do.”

Fedeli’s announcement comes just one day after Doug Ford, brother of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, announced his intention to run for the position. The Conservative party has been moving fast after allegations of sexual misconduct against the former party leader, Patrick Brown, forced the politician’s swift resignation from the helm January 24.

Speaking to the Observer, Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris said that he was still reacting to the revelations.

“I’m still in awe and shock about everything that’s transpired but we have to move forward,” he said. “And I’m challenged with that task to help our party, our membership, our caucus, our community and Ontarians, move forward,” he said.

Harris noted that the allegations against Brown needed to be dealt with in “a serious manner,” but also cautioned against rushing to judgements.

“I can’t help but also acknowledge that there’s got to be a process that needs to be followed as well, and a fair process for everyone,” he said.

“Of course the leader of a political party, there was no doubt going to be more questions asked about this. But at the same time, there’s got to be a process in place. It just happened so fast,” he said, when asked if Brown was right to step down before an investigation was held.

The timing of the resignation, just months before the provincial election in June, has left the party scrambling for new leadership to take on the Liberals. MPP Fedeli was selected by the party caucus in meetings over the weekend to serve as interim leader.

Fedeli will have a challenging time uniting the party under a single platform, however, as the party executive voted to hold a leadership race before the June election. The race will see candidates pitted against one another, vying for the approval of the party base, before quickly turning the party’s attention back to provincial elections.

“The problem is that leadership contests are intrinsically divisive,” explained de Christine de Clercy, associate professor of political science at Western University.

“I doubt that having a leadership campaign now would produce a unified coherent party that’s capable of fighting as efficient and as effective an election as one that simply accepts an interim leader, and goes forward into the election with that interim leader.”

The question to ask now, she said, was whether the party would continue along the centrist path set out by Brown, or whether other ideologies within the party, such as the fiscal or social conservatives, would come to dominate.

Anna Esselment, assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, noted much the party’s messaging and policies had been organized around Patrick Brown as the leader.

“Everything was built around Patrick Brown. So the platform, the “People’s Guarantee,” it was his face on the cover. There were 147 promises in that platform, and they all started off with ‘Patrick Brown and the Ontario PCs will…’,” said Esselment.

But with Brown suddenly felled, the entire party’s political line is thrown askew. An opportunity that emerges from all this, however, is that the sudden media attention would raise awareness of the PC party’s new leader. People who had never heard of Patrick Brown might suddenly be very interested in who his replacement would be, said Esselment.

“It might be in their interest to choose another woman,” she suggested, as a way for the party to distance themselves from the scandal.

“And it would also be really neat if they ended up choosing another [woman] leader. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have three women fighting it out for the premiership?” she added, noting the women leaders of the Ontario Liberal and NDP parties, Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath, respectively.

“I think that would be a great opportunity for Ontarians and for women in politics.”

The allegations against Brown were made last week in an evening CTV News broadcast by two women. The first said she had a consensual sexual encounter with Brown more than a decade ago at his home after meeting him in a bar. The woman was reported “still in high school” and under the legal drinking age at the time she met Brown at the bar.

The second woman says she was a former employee of Brown’s in 2013 when the encounter took place. The woman had met Brown on a flight, with the politician making social overtures. She didn’t accept, but a few months later asked Brown for a job, for which she was hired.

The woman alleges she was in Brown’s home following a party, sitting with him alone on his bed.

“The next thing I know he’s kissing me. Sitting beside me, kissing me and then I was, I kind of just froze up,” she says in the interview. She asked him to stop and take her home, which he did.

Both women have not been identified by CTV, at their request.

In a curt press conference late last Wednesday at Queen’s Park, shortly before the accusations first spread, Brown denied the allegations. In a later statement released the next morning, Brown said he would remain as an MPP but decided to resign as leader of the party.

Besides Brown, party president Rick Dykstra stepped down from his post via a statement on social media. According to Maclean’s news media, a PC party staffer had accused Dykstra of sexual assault in 2014. The woman had reportedly filed a complaint with Ottawa police.

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