Ever since Patrick Brown won the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership with 61.8 per cent of eligible votes on May 9, 2015, the man-who-would-be-premier has been the source of mystery and confusion for many Ontarians.
Brown’s impressive victory over Christine Elliott, a high-profile MPP and wife of late federal Tory finance minister Jim Flaherty, rocked the PC establishment to its core. After all, the then-37-year-old Tory MP, and former city councillor in Barrie, Ont., was a relatively quiet backbencher who had never held a cabinet seat or important political post.
Party stalwarts begrudgingly acknowledged his impressive campaign strategy of ethnic outreach (a la Jason Kenney, one-time federal Tory MP, former Alberta PC leader and candidate to lead the United Conservative Party in Alberta) and organizational skills. They were also aware of his political pedigree, being the nephew of former PC MPP Joe Tascona.
Yet they didn’t know much about the new Ontario PC leader’s personal views and political vision. If the people who eat, sleep and breathe politics were largely in the dark, how would the rest of Ontario react?
Most Ontarians don’t know a single thing about Brown, and probably couldn’t identify him in a police lineup if their lives depended on it. While the PCs have a healthy lead in provincial polls, this has been mainly a result of lost confidence in Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s weak, inept and scandal-ridden government.
The media haven’t helped Brown build a profile, either. A small number of one-on-one interviews and feature pieces on Brown have either been half-hearted or missed the mark. Meanwhile, reporters revel in strident discussions about his voting record as a federal MP (he supported repealing same-sex marriage and reopening the abortion debate), suggested there were irregularities in several PC nomination meetings, and have called him a clone of everything from former prime minister Stephen Harper to U.S. President Donald Trump.
I’ve watched the many twists and turns in this story and I’ve never seen so much confusion and/or misinformation reported about a Canadian political leader. I had hoped things would have improved by now and that Brown’s ideas, rather than his identity, would have become the focus.
In an era where political branding is a key component to electoral success, Brown’s story needs to be told.
I can help unlock the mystery. I’ve known Brown for about 25 years. We were volunteers in then-Ontario PC cabinet minister Isabel Bassett’s constituency office in Toronto and have remained in friendly contact.
Brown is the same person I met in my salad days. He’s intelligent, good-natured and down-to-earth. He enjoys spending time with his family and friends. He worked hard to overcome a childhood stutter. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto and a law degree from the University of Windsor. He has always loved politics, and firmly believes in the importance of public service.
We’ve agreed on many things and politely disagreed on others. For instance, I drink alcohol (he doesn’t) and I’d much rather watch paint dry than go jogging (a passion he shares with Wynne). As the saying goes, no -one’s perfect!
Brown’s political ideology has long been a blend of Red Tory (left-leaning conservative) and Blue Tory (right-leaning conservative) philosophies. He takes a measured approach to issues like responsible government, levels of taxation, funding of social programs like education and health care, and helping those in need.
This isn’t a unique balancing act. It’s a political formula two recent federal Tory prime ministers, Harper and Brian Mulroney, successfully employed for years.
“I consider myself a pragmatic Progressive Conservative,” Brown wrote in a recent email, “and I’m proud to say that today’s Ontario PC Party is modern, inclusive and pragmatic. To paraphrase a statement from former Ontario premier Bill Davis, what is crucially important in the position of a leader or premier is trust, responsibility, service and leadership.”
Brown has always refused to pigeonhole himself ideologically. “I believe in championing issues and values that promote Ontario’s well-being with reasonable and responsible solutions. One of my favourite sayings is that there’s no monopoly on a good idea. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an NDP idea, a Liberal idea, or a Progressive Conservative idea, I will support great ideas if they are in the best interests of Ontario.”
His position is straightforward. It may be ideologically different in detail than some Canadian conservatives, including Harper, Mulroney and me, but it’s fiscally and socially responsible. There’s no reason why most right-leaning individuals should be opposed to it – or mortified by it.
In fact, Brown’s values are very much in step with residents of his province. “I think most Ontarians, regardless of political affiliation, believe in fiscal responsibility,” wrote Brown. “They want to see a government that respects their hard-earned tax dollars. This would be a change after 14 years of Liberal governments. Most Ontarians also want their government to stay out of the way when it comes to their personal lives.”
Moreover, the “majority of Ontarians want to have a good paying job and more money in their pockets to help them make ends meet – and perhaps have a little bit extra to spend on their loved ones. The Ontario PC Party wants to make life more affordable so that hardworking families can pay less and get ahead.”
As premier, Brown would champion smaller government, lower taxes, and greater degrees of individual rights and freedoms. There could be some points of disagreement, including his proposed carbon tax, which is an imperfect strategy (although better than what exists in the province). Nevertheless, it would be a less intrusive government, free from the never-ending supply of Liberal-oriented state interference.
There would also be more openness and transparency in government spending and policy in Brown’s Ontario. This would be a welcome relief from the gas plant scandals, missing computer files and allegations of cooking the economic books that have defined Wynne’s tenure.
What about allegations of a hidden agenda, based on Brown’s past support for socially conservative policies? This historical strategy to undermine Canadian conservatives has failed more often than it has succeeded (just ask former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin), but the political boogeyman clearly hasn’t disappeared.
Well, it should. Brown has never had a hidden agenda.
Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert wrote on May 11, 2015, that, during a previous conversation, Brown told her his support for repealing same-sex marriage “was to honour Stephen Harper’s 2006 commitment to test whether there was enough support to revisit the issue.”
Guess what? I was working in the prime minister’s office at the time. Brown’s vote wasn’t unique; it was closer to the norm among Conservatives.
This also means his votes on issues like re-opening the abortion debate, which he told Hebert were done because “he was reflecting his constituents’ views,” were specifically for that purpose. (He won’t re-open this debate as Ontario premier, however.) While this has certainly displeased social conservatives, that’s how politics often operates. Other right-leaning politicians have followed similar strategies. Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, for example, took a balanced approach to abortion (which he strongly opposes) because his constituents felt differently.
Are we so jaded about modern politics that we can’t accept any counter-explanation that doesn’t fit with our worldview as being truthful? I hope not.
But why should anyone believe the analysis of a long-time conservative columnist, commentator, activist, spin doctor and former speechwriter to Harper?
Guilty on all charges, m’lord.
While there’s no question I’m a political ideologue, I’m also a straight shooter when it comes to opinion and analysis. Good policies and strategies deserve to be acknowledged, and bad ones deserve to be condemned. I’ve praised Liberal, NDP and Green initiatives, and I’ve criticized Conservatives – including Brown.
I’ve always believed in being honest about conservatives’ mistakes rather than overdosing on political Kool-Aid. That’s what friends and associates should do to help their comrades-in-arms achieve political greatness.
Brown and I are friendly, but not close friends, and I don’t feel obliged to help in his political rebranding.
But the record needs to be set straight about Brown’s politics, views and values.
I believe he’ll make an excellent premier of Ontario. He has the intelligence, ability and tools to rebuild this tattered province after 14 years of Liberal meddling, and make it an economic beacon once more.
It’s time to focus on next June’s provincial election, Ontario PC policies, and whether their leader can resonate with large swaths of voters. Onward and upward.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.