Who will lead Ontario’s Conservatives?

Well, the race is on.

Members of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario will choose a new leader on March 10. There is really only one question members of the PC Party have to ask themselves as they choose who should lead them through the 89 days that follow before the provincial election on June 7:

Who can beat Kathleen Wynne?

The contestants for the leadership are, so far:

Doug Ford Jr. (53) – businessman and older brother of the late Rob Ford, former Mayor of Toronto. Ford entered politics in 2010 when he won the Toronto city council seat vacated by his brother Rob when the latter ran for mayor. He served one tumultuous term on Toronto council, then replaced Rob Ford on the 2014 ballot for Toronto mayor when Rob withdrew from the race to battle cancer. Despite his brief run and the controversy surrounding his brother, Doug Ford finished a surprisingly close second to John Tory.

Christine Elliott (63) – lawyer and widow of the much-loved former federal Conservative Party finance minister Jim Flaherty, Elliott has run for leader – and lost – twice before. When Flaherty jumped from provincial to federal politics in 2006, she ran to replace him as the MPP from Whitby- Ajax and won. In 2009, she ran for the leadership, finishing third. In 2015, she ran again and finished well behind Patrick Brown, despite having support of the majority of the PC Caucus. She left the convention centre shortly after the results were announced and never returned to Queen’s Park or political life. She eventually resigned her seat on August 28, 2015.

likely to be joined by:

Caroline Mulroney (43) – lawyer and venture fund manager, she is the daughter of Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993. She announced her intention to seek the nomination for the PC Party of Ontario in the riding of York-Simcoe, which has elected a PC MPP in every election since the riding was created in 2007. Mulroney is married to Andrew Lapham and has four children.

Rod Phillips (53) – business and community leader, he is very much a creature of politics. Although never elected, he was Chief of Staff to Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman during the birth of the amalgamated “megacity,” and then later to the provincial PC minister of labour, before being appointed as president of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation under the chairmanship of Paul Godfrey (a key supporter of Lastman). Phillips later became Chairman of Postmedia, the publisher of Canada’s National Post and other newspapers, when Godfrey became CEO.Updated 4 Feb, 2018 7:26 pm: House Godfrey retires from the battlefield. Rod Phillips is out.

So, much like Game of Thrones, this is becoming a clash of rival political dynasties. In this case, there are four:

  1. House Ford, representing the “new blood” of the under-dog, under-represented, and under-appreciated commoners, championed by Doug Ford Jr.
  2. House Harris (The Old Guard), representing the interests of the tight-knit and extremely small core of diehard PC members who stuck through the lean, losing years by holding tight to “core conservative values” that appeal largely to the oldest, whitest, retiredest, nearly deadest segment of Ontario. The champion these “elites” have chosen in this race: Christine Elliott. Again.
  3. House Godfrey, representing, well, Paul Godfrey – one the most wealthy, influential and powerful political forces in Ontario, championed by his long-time squire Rod Phillips.
  4. House Mulroney, eager to add a new chapter to what could become a family dynasty and championed by Caroline Mulroney who, it hopes, will appeal to the progressive and feminist side of the conservative family as well as those looking for the generational change Patrick Brown promised, without the vulnerability every man in the race would bring to the role in a #MeToo world.

What do members want?

The PC Party of Ontario today is very different than it was three years ago. Prior to the last leadership race, the membership of the PCPO was nowhere near reflective of the province at large. Fifty-five per cent of the 9,000 paid-up PC Party members were over 65 years old; 84 per cent were over 50. Today, the party counts over 200,000 paid-up members and they are from every walk of life, every corner of the province, every age and demographic segment in the province. It’s not just an old, white man’s party anymore. It’s everyone’s party.

The vast majority of these members were attracted to the new PCPO by Patrick Brown. They will be disappointed in him now, but they are not any happier with the Kathleen Wynne Liberals. Who will they choose to follow?

Age.  Many of the new PCPO members may have been attracted by Brown’s youth. He’s 39 and represents  generational renewal in what was an old man’s party. At 43 on provincial election day, Caroline Mulroney is just three years older than Brown. Elliott is 63, Ford and Phillips are both 53. Federally, conservative party members also chose a new generation of leader in Andrew Scheer who, at 38, is younger than Brown. Meanwhile Justin Trudeau is 46 and Jagmeet Singh is 39. Does the PCPO really want to go back to an older leader?

Gender. PCPO members were shocked by the downfall of Patrick Brown. Whether they believe the allegations made against him and are disgusted by them, or even if they still believe Brown is an innocent victim, they all must wonder whether the next male leader will be similarly vulnerable to #MeToo allegations in the middle of the general election campaign. Will they want to take that chance? Or, will they choose to somewhat insulate the party against such charges by choosing a woman leader? There will find two highly competitive options in Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott.

Experience. Will it come down to experience? Who can take the reins and lead the party to victory in the short time available before the general election? If it’s pure political experience that counts, Christine Elliott is a clear choice – but the argument can be made that Elliott’s experience is largely at losing. She lost two previous leadership campaigns quite badly, in part because she’s a lousy campaigner. She was also the deputy leader of the PCPO and helped steered the two previous, disastrous provincial campaigns.

Rightly or wrongly, many people see Doug Ford as (a) an experienced politician who was elected to Toronto council and came close to being elected mayor in 2014, and (b) a successful multi-millionaire business who “has signed paycheques” and run a profitable business. Rod Phillips is also a proven business success – albeit largely in patronage positions to which he was appointed for political reasons – with backroom experience in politics. Mulroney has a private sector record to be proud of, but neither she nor Phillips have ever put their names on a ballot before, contested a debate, or had to perform under the intense public spotlight that comes with political leadership.

Ideology. Brown was able to win the leadership in 2015 because he created a brand new political party out of the ashes of a failed PCPO. This new party appeals to younger voters from diverse ethnic origins who share mildly conservative views on fiscal policy and personal morals. They are truly centrists. Although their own cultural and religious values are often socially conservative, and these inform their own behaviours, they don’t as a rule, believe in forcing others to follow their values. They are not “right wing” conservatives in any sense – and, in this sense, they are highly representative of the broader Ontario population.

Christine Elliott’s PC Old Guard wants the party to swing back to the right – away from the general population. They may be comfortable there, but they will not win the hearts and minds of Ontarians – and likely won’t get their votes either. Doug Ford thinks he’s an ultra-right wing Republican, but is more interested in power and approval than ideology. He may be comfortable on the right wing, but he would be even more comfortable in the Premier’s Office. Rod Phillips and Caroline Mulroney are politically unknown, but are probably more progressive conservative than right wing – and so, either might be a good fit for centrist PCPO members and Ontario voters.

Who will they choose?

If she had more experience, Caroline Mulroney would be the choice of many. She’s young, she’s a woman, she’s been successful outside politics and yet has been around the political world long enough to understand the language, she’s got a young family that would appeal even to the family-values conservatives.  If only, she’d had a term in office under her belt. If she’s not the first choice of members, she’s likely to be a second choice.

Doug Ford is, hands-down, the man to beat. He looks very good from a distance. You have to know him well to find his flaws – unless, of course, your a rabid anti-Conservative ideologue or Ford-hating Toronto hysteric, in which case you’re not a PCPO member and don’t get a vote. Ford’s other advantage is he was first out of the gate, has momentum and has the Ford gene that allows him to soak up all the attention and media coverage in a room. Despite the fact Doug Ford threw his support to Christine Elliott in the last PC leadership race, most of Ford Nation within the PCPO actually voted for Brown. They’d love to vote for Doug.

Christine Elliott is the sweetheart of the Old Guard PC Elite, but they are (literally) a dying breed. She may be a palatable second choice for many voters though. Meanwhile, Interim Leader Vic Fedeli and the Old Guard PC Elite who are running the PC party at the moment will try to disqualify as many potential Ford voters as possible to help Elliott win. I can’t imagine they will have the time or the rationale to disqualify enough of them.

Phillips is not really a contender, but it will boost his profile enough to help him win his riding and secure a cabinet seat if the PC’s win government. There will be a huge battle over his supporter’s second choices. Who wins these, may win the race. If you’re supporting Phillips it’s because you owe Paul Godfrey or you don’t care about age but don’t like Elliott. So, many of his supporters may go Ford.

Prediction: Ford wins.

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