His problems are rooted in 2015, when Brown, a backbencher in Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government, ran for the provincial Tory leadership and won, with help from dozens of organizations.
He surprised everyone, selling more party memberships than popular former MPP Christine Elliot, who was branded as a red Tory in contrast to Brown’s socially conservative values. Indeed, support from Ontario’s social conservatives helped give Brown the leadership.
High on Brown’s agenda was the promise to repeal Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sex-education curriculum. That wedge issue played a significant role in his victory.
What stood out about Brown was his desire to welcome every conservative who felt alienated by the party because their issues fell on deaf ears.
Two years later, Brown is well on his way to alienating those very same members and organizations.
It started in August 2016, after it was revealed that Brown’s staff sent a letter to an independent candidate in the Scarborough-Rouge River byelection, assuring that a PC government would repeal Wynne’s sex-ed curriculum. Brown quickly changed his tune, telling the Toronto Star that it was a “mistake” and that he had no intention of changing anything.
It was a defining moment. Brown was accused of flip-flopping and almost immediately lost a vast majority of his social conservative base.
Jack Fonseca, strategist for Campaign Life, an anti-abortion coalition that supported Brown, called him a “dishonest, two-faced political huckster.”
Brown responded by saying that his views on sex ed had evolved. He told Ontario’s social conservatives there was “no room for intolerance” and that they could “vote for someone else” if they disagreed.
Last week, hardline social-conservative candidates Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux ranked high in the balloting for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership. And social conservative MP Andrew Scheer won.
Trost finished fourth, surprising pollsters and pundits. He told CBC that social conservatives were organizing quietly and that organization was key to his high numbers. His campaign also targeted Brown, suggesting that his support for sex ed and a carbon tax was not consistent with the social conservative brand.
In Ontario, where Trost was most effective, social conservatives are in full organization mode. That means that Brown, heading toward the 2018 provincial election, needs to rethink his strategy of making enemies with the same groups that put him in leadership.
This week, social conservative MPP Jack MacLaren quit Brown’s caucus and joined the fringe Trillium Party. Trillium calls itself an alternative conservative choice. Repealing Wynne’s sex ed curriculum is part of its platform.
MacLaren was one of the first MPPs to endorse Brown’s leadership and he co-chaired his campaign.
MacLaren told the Toronto Star this week that after Brown’s staff got wind of his plan to defect, they came up with a strategy to fire him to save face. That strategy included releasing a video from 2012 in which MacLaren met with Canadians for Language Fairness, a group that believes there is an “overemphasis” on French-speaking requirements in government employment.
In his press release defending MacLaren’s removal from caucus, Brown highlighted the many “unacceptable comments” made by MacLaren, and that his views on francophone language rights was “the last straw.” (When MacLaren made far worse remarks about women, Brown didn’t fire him.)
Beth Trudeau, spokesperson for Canadians for Language Fairness, released a Facebook post that included a photo of Brown meeting with the group and securing an endorsement from them after listening to their views.
But the 2012 video includes something far more sinister: MacLaren suggesting the PCs had a secret agenda. That the PC brain trust used this video to oust MacLaren speaks to their ineptitude. Rather than focus on MacLaren’s views on language rights, the Ontario Liberals jumped on the “secret agenda” comments and helped the social conservatives define Brown as untrustworthy.
And as if that wasn’t enough, three PC riding associations filed grievances about fixed nominations and ballot stuffing. Former Newmarket-Aurora MPP and social conservative Frank Klees called the nomination process of an “egregious ethical breach.”
Two years ago, Brown’s style was to encourage new memberships to a welcoming party that would hear all voices.
Now, it seems Brown is intent on picking fights with the very people who gave him victory.
Underestimating the ability of social conservatives to organize and drive change would be a serious mistake.
Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun.