Following the defeat of Tim Hudak in last year’s Ontario election, the provincial Progressive Conservative Party began a nearly nine-month leadership campaign. Christine Elliott, the widow of former finance minister Jim Flaherty and a social liberal, was widely seen as the prohibitive frontrunner. She had been the co-frontrunner in 2009 when the Tories picked Hudak to lead the party and she finished third in the preferential ballot, narrowly edged by Frank Klees, an MPP endorsed by Campaign Life Coalition.
This time, CLC had two endorsable candidates for leader, federal MP Patrick Brown and provincial MPP Monte McNaughton. After the membership deadline, McNaughton dropped out and supported Brown in an effort to prevent Elliott from winning.
Brown and McNaughton both opposed the early sex-ed curriculum of Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. Elliott said she didn’t like the process that lacked proper consultation with parents but never questioned the content or age-appropriateness of the material. Elliott also supports abortion and same-sex “marriage” and repeatedly called for a more fiscally conservative, socially liberal PC Party. Brown had a perfect record as MP on life and family issues according to CLC and while Brown declined to call himself a social conservative, he told pro-life and pro-family voters that he should be judged on his record. McNaughton is rated pro-life and pro-family by CLC, and he made the sex-ed curriculum a central plank of his leadership bid.
McNaughton chastised Elliott for being a Red Tory out of touch with the thousands of parents who were upset with the sex-ed curriculum. Many were from ethnic communities who previously supported the Liberals but were giving it a second thought. McNaughton compared Elliott to Kathleen Wynne and said if the PCs elected Elliott as leader, the province would have two liberal parties. The week of the vote McNaughton released a statement on “Christine Elliott Trudeau” that said her rhetoric about a big blue tent aside, she risked turning the Tories into a “little red tent,” or even “little pink tent.” The media labeled McNaughton’s comments a veiled homophobic attack and more than a dozen of Elliott’s caucus colleagues wore pink at Queen’s Park to show their support for her.
It was a classic battle between establishment Red Tory and upstart outsider. Throughout the campaign, the Elliott camp trumpeted polls and analyses that they would win handily. In the days before the May 9 leadership convention in Mississauga, the media reported that the contest was neck-and-neck.
The week before the vote, pro-lifers began receiving a flyer from Concerned Conservatives of Ontario, which claimed Brown was not pro-life or pro-family, going so far as to attack him for being a bachelor without kids who could not understand family issues. CLC’s Jeff Gunnarson told The Interim this was a dirty trick, probably carried out by the Elliott campaign or one of her supporters.
CLC contacted their supporters with mailings, email reminders, and a voice blast urging them to vote for Brown and ignore the bogus Concerned Conservatives letter.
Elliott repeatedly said that only she could beat Wynne and the Liberals in the next provincial election, scheduled for 2018. Brown vowed to rebuild the party by talking to groups that traditionally do not support the Tories – various ethnic communities, unionized workers – and shake up the party establishment. Elliott was winning headlines as her clever and high-priced marketing experts were able to spin stories to her advantage and get positive press coverage, but Brown signed up more than 40,000 members – a record for any candidate in Ontario PC history – as his organizers had a huge advantage on the ground.
The vote would be by riding with points allotted for percentage won. Getting 160 out of 200 votes, for example, would net 80 points in a specific riding. If there were fewer than 100 party members, each vote would count for a single point. Brown was thought to have inefficiently focused his efforts in a handful of Toronto, Brampton, and Mississauga ridings, where there were numerous Tamil, Sikh, Chinese, and Hindi voters. Elliott was seen to have the support of those who were long-time members, which represented about 10,000 of the more than 75,000 eligible voters, and probably the most motivated to get out and vote.
When the results were presented, Brown won 6542 points compared to 4040 for Elliott, or just under 62 per cent of the total points. In terms of the actual vote, Brown garnered 22,952 compared to 14,695 for Elliott, or 60.9 per cent of the vote. Brown trounced Elliott, winning more than three-quarters of the ridings, including most of the GTA, much of Toronto, the entire Ottawa region and northern Ontario, and most large cities such as London, Kitchener, Hamilton, and Windsor, as well as rural ridings.
How did Brown do it?
As one strategist joked at the convention, the new politically potent coalition in Ontario politics was “Tamils and Catholics.” That sums it up, but it needs explaining.
Only 49 per cent of eligible members bothered to vote. Turnout was lower among various ethnic communities, but the pure numbers gave Brown huge margins in most of the Brampton, Mississauga, Scarborough, and Markham ridings. In other ridings, turnout among social conservatives was high. Numerous sources within the Brown campaign credit supporters of Campaign Life Coalition, Parents as First Educators, and the members McNaughton signed up. Strategists acknowledge some overlap between the groups.
CLC supporters came out in force. McNaughton told The Interim in April that pro-life and pro-family voters were the most motivated to vote in the leadership, and it appears he was correct. According to numerous sources within the Brown campaign, their voter identification efforts found that about three-quarters of CLC supporters who bought a membership voted in the leadership contest. That, as one put it, “is an astonishingly high number.” While one source had it closer to two-thirds of CLC supporters, but the point is that pro-life and pro-family PC supporters voted at significantly higher rates than the PC membership at large. Campaign Life Coalition’s own analysis of their voter list, that included a survey of supporters after the vote, confirms that about 75 per cent of CLC supporters voted. Considering that CLC has confirmed that it signed up at least 5000 members – and probably closer to 6000 overall – with a 75 per cent turnout, roughly one in five Brown votes came from Campaign Life Coalition. Add in the socially conservative PAFE and McNaughton voters who are not on the CLC list, and it could mean that fully a quarter or more of Brown’s support came from pro-life and pro-family Progressive Conservative supporters.
Neil Flagg wrote for The Megaphone that McNaughton delivered a huge number of votes by leveraging the credibility he earned as an early opponent of Wynne’s sex-ed curriculum to direct his massive following – between 8,000 and 12,000 new memberships – to Brown. According to sources within the Brown camp, McNaughton’s membership list voted at a higher rate for Brown as leader than those Brown himself had signed up.
CLC’s Jeff Gunnarson told The Interim that these numbers suggest the Tories would be “making a mistake to ignore social conservatives in the upcoming election.” He said that pro-life and pro-family voters deserve the chance to elect like-minded candidates and for socially conservative groups to have the ear of party leadership when discussing policy in the future. Gunnarson said that at the very least, Brown will need to keep his promise to revisit early sex-ed if elected premier and warned the new PC leader should not shy away from addressing the topic in opposition. Gunnarson noted that many families from the ethnic communities to which Brown is reaching out are among the staunchest opponents of the curriculum.
CLC president Jim Hughes said Brown’s record was impressive but what he is excited about is the chance to elect pro-life and pro-family candidates within the PC Party, assuming that Brown challenges the establishment status quo and opens the party to its grassroots members. “We are not expecting special favours,” Hughes told The Interim, “we just want an even playing field so that if we sign up enough members, we can win an honest nomination.”
Former MPP Frank Klees told The Interim that the result showed that “the Progressive Conservative Party welcomes everybody regardless of where they come from or their worldview.” He said social conservatives are part of the coalition that elected Brown and that their voice will be among those he listens to going forward.
In the days following his victory, Brown was advised by many in the media to drop his social conservatism, and distance himself from McNaughton. He has done neither. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy suggested the Tories have a “death wish” for embracing Brown and his socially conservative views. The National Post’s Michael den Tandt said Brown will need a “bigger tent” than mere socons to win an Ontario general election. And the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn said Brown owed his victory to pro-lifers but would soon disappoint his base because it was not electorally feasible. Meanwhile Research Forum conducted a poll which found that about a quarter of Ontarians support the pro-life and pro-traditional marriage position; the polling company’s president Lorne Bozinoff suggested socially conservative issues were election losers, but in reality it represents a huge base from which to build.
Jim Hughes said it happens every time: “A conservative gets selected leader and the sore losers in the party and the opposition have this media megaphone that attacks, attacks, attacks.” Hughes said that party leaders who are not defined solely as social conservatives can win elections – Stephen Harper was wrongly perceived as a social conservative and was thrice elected prime minister – but they need not be the standard-bearers on contentious issues. Hughes said as Brown defines himself on other issues, the media will not be able to paint Brown as obsessed with social issues.
In the meantime, both Hughes and Gunnarson said grassroots pro-lifers have the opportunity to nominate and elect pro-life MPPs and CLC encourages its members to obtain and maintain a PC membership so they can become involved in the party during its renewal. “If we stand on the sidelines,” said Hughes, “we won’t be part of the game. We need to get involved and help influence the party now that we have elected a potential ally as leader.”
Gunnarson said CLC’s goal is to elect a caucus that will support Brown’s decision to revisit the sex-ed curriculum and be unafraid to address other moral conservative issues as they arise at the provincial level.