The following is a column by Dwight Duncan, the former Ontario finance minister and current senior strategic adviser at McMillan LLP.
On May 15, Patrick Brown will mark the first anniversary of his election as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. His win was a triumph of dogged determination.
But, even though the Wynne government remains mired in bad poll numbers, and his party retained two seats in byelections, there really isn’t anything in the past year that suggests that Brown’s Progressive Conservatives are making any progress in defining themselves, or their leader, in the public mind.
Opposition leaders in Ontario have a difficult row to hoe.
The circus surrounding PC MPP Jack MacLaren, and Brown’s handling of that embarrassment, should give pause to Conservatives who are working hard to expand the party’s base and compete for government in the next election.
Brown erred in not removing MacLaren from caucus immediately. MacLaren’s conduct brought dishonour to himself, his party and on all member’s of the legislature.
Moreover, while the Wynne government is struggling with a number of contentious issues, MacLaren managed to shift the spotlight away from them and put it on his own party.
The role of out-of-control renegade is nothing new for MacLaren. He and his Lanark Landowner collaborators have destabilized the PC Party, challenged successive leaders, given expression to extreme views that are out of sync with average voters, and reinforced stereotypes about social and populist conservatives.
MacLaren and his ilk are an Ontario Liberal's best friend.
Brown’s weak-kneed response undermines his efforts to distance himself from the extreme elements in his party and his past. It implies that he is not too concerned about MacLaren’s behaviour or, even worse, is afraid to confront it. In short, it is an abdication of leadership.
Brown would do well to examine how two former opposition leaders handled similar but different circumstances.
Mike Harris was elected leader of Ontario’s PC Party in 1990. The period 1990 to 1995 was one of the darkest periods in Conservative history. The federal PCs imploded, splitting into three parties and losing all but two seats in the 1993 election. Jean Chrétien’s Liberals swept Ontario.
Against this backdrop, Harris had to hold together warring factions within his party and beat back the formation of an Ontario Reform Party.
Harris was faced with multiple challenges in opposition. He held together the remnants of the old Tory machine while engaging a much more fiscally right-wing, new generation of conservatives who, like himself, were inspired by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. What little media Harris got in those days was focused on his internal problems and seemingly impossible odds.
Displaying real backbone, Harris made the impossible possible. His overwhelming victory in 1995 was the first evidence that conservatism was far from dead in Ontario and Canada.
Dalton McGuinty had to deal with a number of challenges in his years as opposition leader. One of them sticks out in my mind because of how difficult it was on everyone involved.
The late Claudette Boyer was a wonderful woman and a long-time Liberal volunteer. She was also a prominent and respected leader in the Ontario francophone community.
In 1999, she was elected to the legislature. She was very popular among her colleagues. Sadly, later that year, she was charged criminally with obstruction of justice.
McGuinty suspended her from caucus, and faced a barrage of criticism internally. He was seen to be too harsh, and at best, premature. After all, she hadn’t been convicted.
The media and pundits assumed his decision to suspend was a no-brainer. By any objective measure, it was. His caucus and his party were his biggest challenge, quite apart from his own affection for Boyer.
McGuinty understood, however, that he could not compromise on something so fundamental. How could he possibly hold a government to account while allowing someone charged criminally to sit in his caucus? He had to put the party’s interests ahead of all else, even if it meant an internal fight.
Boyer continued to serve as an MPP. Her segregation in the legislature was a daily reminder of the heartache we all felt. She eventually pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, a small blemish on an otherwise good life. She retired in 2003, understanding better than most how cruel politics can be.
While taking no pleasure in it, McGuinty once again showed his caucus and party who was in charge. Each of us who continued to serve in both opposition and government knew that he would put the party and government’s interests ahead of all else, no matter what our track record.
Brown would do well to learn from his predecessors. Sensitivity training is no substitute for backbone and courage.
Senior Strategic Advisor, McMillan LLP
Dwight Duncan has been a senior strategic adviser to McMillan LLP, the Toronto-based business law firm, since March 2013. He advises the firm's clients on investing and operating in Canada and abroad. A long-time MPP from Windsor, Duncan became Ontario finance minister in 2005 and held the cabinet post until he left politics in 2013. Duncan was also minister of energy, revenue minister and deputy premier, among other posts in the McGuinty government.