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Is “not being Kathleen Wynne” PC leader Patrick Brown’s main asset going into the 2018 election?

Is “not being Kathleen Wynne” PC leader Patrick Brown’s main asset going into the 2018 election?

Stewart Kiff | January 2018

With the arrival of the New Year, the countdown is now officially on for the June 7 Ontario election. How that election will shape up is anyone’s guess at this point since the latest polls paint two very different scenarios. One points to a massive win by the PCs, with the Liberals falling to third place behind the NDP. The other suggests that the Liberals are not trailing as badly and could still hold on to power, albeit in a minority position. Both these scenarios will evolve over the next months, as the election campaign kicks into high gear.

 

PCs on the upswing

At this point though PC leader Patrick Brown is doing everything in his power to put his party in the winner’s seat. Although polls show he is still relatively unknown to the electorate, he has been working relentlessly at building the ground campaign. The PC party has signed up a whopping 140,000 members and the number is rising. In 2016, before more restrictive fundraising rules came into effect, it managed to raise $16.1 million – a record amount, and more than twice the amount collected by the governing Liberals. The party has also recruited some star candidates, such as Rod Phillips, former Postmedia chairman, and Caroline Mulroney, a Bay Street executive and daughter of former PM Brian Mulroney. And it showed its strength on the hustings in the Sault Ste-Marie by-election, snatching the seat from both the NPD and the Liberals who had held it in succession since 1985.

Accused of being weak on policy, Patrick Brown surprised many by unveiling his campaign blueprint last November, at the PC Party Convention. The 78-page document, dubbed The People’s Guarantee, keeps most of Kathleen Wynne’s marquee initiatives, including reduced hydro rates, tuition rebates and expanded drug coverage. Patrick Brown promises basically to do what the Liberals are doing, only better – slowing the final push to a $15 minimum wage as a nod to small-business owners and replacing the province’s cap-and-trade system with a carbon tax that would eventually raise more revenues.

And Patrick Brown is also courting voters that the PCs had disregarded during the last 20 years, Francophones for example. Indeed, the PC platform promises support for the establishment of a Franco-Ontarian University – a proposal recently adopted by the Liberal Government –, enhanced government French-language services and measures to remedy the shortage of teachers in Ontario’s French-language schools.

Gone are the harsh policies of former PC leaders Mike Harris or Tim Hudak. Patrick Brown is positioning himself as a fiscally responsible but socially progressive centrist conservative, more in line perhaps with the likes of John Robarts and Bill Davis whose moderate policies and no-waves governing style allowed the PCs to stay in power for an astonishing 42-straight years. First and foremost, Patrick Brown will be positioning himself as “not Kathleen Wynne”. And that could be enough.

 

Kathleen Wynne is prepared to fight

However, Kathleen Wynne should not be discounted too easily. True, she will be battling enormous odds. Although the Liberal party has climbed back in the polls since early 2017, the Premier’s personal numbers are still dismal. And after almost 15 years in power, overcoming the voters’ appetite for change will be a major obstacle. But Kathleen Wynne is a strong leader, capable of making tough decisions. And she is prepared to play hard-ball politics. Indeed, the policies she has announced in the last few months are proving to be popular, namely free postsecondary tuition for students from low-income families and free drug coverage for under-25s. On these and the minimum wage issue, she has brazenly stolen from the NDP playbook in the hopes of attracting left-leaning progressives, a move that proved quite successful for Justin Trudeau at the federal level.

Still, it will be an uphill battle. The animosity that many groups like teachers harboured towards Mike Harris has now dissipated and new election rules will prevent organizations like the Working Families Coalition or teachers’ unions from investing massive amounts of money to promote their point of view during the campaign. Since the Harris era, Liberals had greatly benefitted from both the activist involvement of those groups in the election campaign and a lingering distrust of the PCs.

 

The NDP’s challenge will be to differentiate itself

It remains to be seen how the NDP will manage to stake out its ground during the campaign. Andrea Horwath is the most popular and liked of the three leaders and also the most seasoned, going into her third campaign. But it will not be easy for the NDP to differentiate itself from the Liberals, given the Liberals have already heavily “borrowed” from NDP policies. In the recent strike by community college teachers for example, the NDP remained true to its principles by opposing back-to-work legislation, but that was not necessarily a strategic move in the context of an election since a vast majority of Ontarians favoured putting an end to the strike. The new gentler, kinder Conservatives could also capture some of the NDP’s traditional blue-collar voters. Therefore, expect a populist campaign that will strive to unite the NDP’s disparate coalition of union workers and progressive millennials. And expect new federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to lend a helping hand to his former provincial colleagues.

Obviously, a lot could happen between now and the June 7 election.  The next months will surely prove most dramatic as the three parties put it all on the line to win the looming vote.

 

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