There is a school of thought among Ontario Progressive Conservatives that the worst is behind them, that the scandals and upheaval of the past two weeks will prove to be a blessing in disguise as the party moves ahead with a new leader and fresh resolve to wrest control of the province from the detested Kathleen Wynne and her shopworn Liberals.
A skeptic might dismiss this as cockeyed optimism, but the notion that from disaster will spring great fortune is gaining traction. It is worth examining.
The time frame is exceedingly tight. Patrick Brown resigned in disgrace as leader on Jan. 25, followed by the party president Rick Dykstra. Candidates to replace Brown have until Feb. 16 to present nomination papers signed by 100 party members and pay a $100,000 deposit.
Only persons who are paid-up party members by Feb. 16 will be eligible to vote in the one member-one vote electronic balloting that is to begin on March 2 and to end on March 8. This means candidates will have just 11 days from today to sell new memberships and 25 days to reach out to existing members before the voting begins.
Experience suggests that in a one member-one vote election, candidates will find their time, effort and campaign funds are more profitably invested in selling memberships via the internet than in stumping the province to sell themselves and their wares to the party at large. But, as the party discovered with Brown, the sale of large numbers of memberships leads to fraud – lists padded with names of people who have never been party supporters.
To give you an idea, a month ago Brown declared that under his leadership so many new memberships had been sold that party had enrolled a record of more than 200,000 members. Last week, interim leader Vic Fedeli announced that an audit had revealed that 67,000 of these “instant” Tories did not exist.
Membership misrepresentation is one of four elephants in the room as the PCs attempt to regroup. A second is the legacy of voting fraud that occurred in the nomination of candidates in a number of constituencies on Brown’s watch. A third elephant is the ongoing investigation into expenditure of party funds by Brown and his allies.
The fourth is the big elephant – the damage to the party’s image and reputation caused by the allegation of sexual misconduct that precipitated Brown’s sudden and forced departure. That cost the PCs the high ground in their relentless criticism of the integrity of the Wynne government.
It would have been worse, as Conservative strategist Jamle Watt suggested in a Sunday column, if the skeletons had come out of Patrick Brown’s closet a few months later, at the height of the June 7 election campaign. That would have destroyed the party’s hopes utterly.
As the PCs attempt to regain their footing, expect to hear this rationale from Tory candidates and spin doctors: Patrick Brown was a weak leader with no public appeal and conflicting policies who never managed to rally the party behind him – good riddance!
Many Conservatives see the election of a woman leader as the surest way to put the Brown scandal behind them. At the moment, two women are in the running: veteran Christine Elliott, 62, a former deputy leader of the party; and novice Caroline Mulroney (Lapham), 43, a lawyer and the daughter of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Elliott has always enjoyed caucus support, but has been unable to translate it into broad appeal among the party rank and file. She was defeated in two leadership races, by Tim Hudak in 2009 and by Brown in 2015.
Mulroney may have royal jelly in her DNA, but she has ever held elected office. That didn’t stop her father’s old friend Conrad Black from endorsing her enthusiastically on the weekend: “Caroline Mulroney, in a slogan of Ricard Nixon’s from 1968, ‘is the one’ …The office seeks the woman and she should have it.”