Martin Regg Cohn - May 08, 2017
Patrick Brown is on a winning streak. Two years ago he won the Progressive Conservative leadership. Next year he’s set to win the provincial election. What’s the secret to Brown’s success? Sorry, that’s a secret. No one really knows, because almost no one knows him. It’s hard to know why he stands out, or what he stands for.
That’s not a criticism. There’s just not a lot to criticize. If Ontario’s premier-in-waiting is mostly free of missteps, it’s largely because he has avoided taking any concrete steps to date. But he is not standing still. Brown may seem underwhelming, but he is not to be underestimated. He beat out better-known candidates for the PC leadership in 2015 by beating a path to the doors of new party members while his rivals stuck with the old base. And he bested the Liberals and New Democrats in fundraising last year, raising more money at more fundraisers than any party in any province. Today, the Tories have paid off a $5 million campaign debt and are flush with cash, requiring an investment fund for the surplus. In public opinion polls, voters give him far better marks than Premier Kathleen Wynne, even though most don’t know who he is. It matters not that Brown remains unnoticed, just that Wynne remains unloved.And so his Tories have opened a wide lead in the polls, which consistently suggest they’d win a landslide majority government if an election were held tomorrow. If an election were held tomorrow.Much can happen between tomorrow and a year from tomorrow, when the election campaign will be underway and voters will finally focus on the candidate. Can Brown hold the course to political victory while maintaining maximum flexibility on policy?Give Brown credit for navigating a new path over the course of his long political career. At 38, Brown knows a lot about politics, having spent his entire working life in the field.He won election to Barrie city council at the tender age of 22, sat in the House of Commons at 27, and became provincial leader at 36. Now, after serving the federal Conservatives as a loyal backbencher, boasting of his ties to Stephen Harper, he is reinventing himself.Brown isn’t so much rebranding as unbranding himself. Like the old UnCola, he is now the UnConservative.Back in Ottawa, he was the darling of social conservatives for opposing gay marriage and supporting greater restrictions on abortions. During the PC leadership race, and a subsequent byelection, he opposed updates to Ontario’s embarrassingly outdated sex education curriculum.Today he is renouncing the social conservatism of his past. Without announcing the political conservatism of his future.Running for the party leadership, Brown proffered few policy positions, on the grounds that they should emanate from the grassroots, not be imposed from the top down. On the environment, his plan was to have no plan for a carbon tax — a position he quickly reversed after winning. Brown later announced a policy conference for this November, but the party platform is quietly being written in advance by trusted aides, and the autumn event has been downgraded to a policy rally.Perhaps he is pacing himself, as he does when running marathon races. Possibly he is positioning himself, as he does when taking faceoffs in hockey games, ragging the puck or taking passes from left- and right wingers while staying centred.Brown has surrounded himself with smart teammates in the party. Prominent lawyer Walied Solimon is his campaign chair, and longtime federal Tory adviser Alykhan Velshi (another lawyer) is his new chief of staff bringing order to the Queen’s Park operation.They are both modern Tories who understand Brown’s imperative of expanding the party’s basebeyond the mostly white, largely rural rump it had become in recent years. But if Brown’s hallmark is outreach, it is hardly matched by policy introspection.For journalists, the bad news it that the PC leader doesn’t do much policy. For centrist voters, the good news is that the PC leader doesn’t do much policy. There will be no Common Sense Revolution of the Mike Harris era, merely an UnConservative Evolution.Perhaps Brown sees that a lack of vision is no liability at a time of such hostility to the incumbent Liberals. But if he is light on policy, where is the personality?Brown has been unbeatable at raising money and recruiting members. But his belief that the personal touch works magic will be tested over the next year as long as his political persona remains unformed.