Patrick Brown faces challenges modernizing Ontario PC Party

Ontario Progressive Conservative party leader Patrick Brown speaks after winning the PC party leadership in Toronto in 2015. Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Patrick Brown says anyone who is surprised by his support for carbon pricing and LGBT issues just doesn’t know him very well.

The statement underscores the Progressive Conservative leader’s two main challenges – reshaping the party while also struggling to build a personal brand.

Brown has led the party for a little over a year and with the 2018 election and his bid to be premier just two years away, his common refrain is that he is building a “modern, inclusive” PC party.

“It’s how I’ve always felt about the Conservative movement,” he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

“Now that I’m in the leadership position I can really advocate the direction of the party…It doesn’t matter who you love, it doesn’t matter where you’re born, the colour of your skin, what god you believe, you have a home in our PC party.”

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But Brown has to make sure he is not alienating any wing of the party, including the social conservatives, said former Progressive Conservative MPP-turned politics professor Rob Leone.

“He has to be very careful in terms of the policies he chooses, the messages that he sends, to make sure that the people he brought with him through the leadership process are going to stay with him until the election,” said Leone, who teaches at Western University.

Brown disputes that social conservatives were the key to his leadership victory – it was growing the base and reaching out to diverse communities, he says – but they are at least partly laying claim to it.

Charles McVety, president of the Institute for Canadian Values, last month slammed Brown’s modernization efforts, saying, “Patrick sold thousands of memberships on the promise to fight LGBT radical sex education.”

During the leadership race Brown spoke at a rally protesting the Liberal government’s new sex ed curriculum. It included updates such as warnings about online bullying and sexting, but protesters zeroed in on discussions of same-sex marriage, masturbation and gender identity.

“Teachers should teach facts about sex education, not values,” Brown said at the February 2015 rally. “Parents teach values.”

Brown says he only took issue with the curriculum’s limited parental consultation.

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“I wasn’t pointing out specific criticisms at the curriculum,” he says. “It was the process. I do believe life lessons, those are important for parents.”

Courting all sides of the party has made Brown a “moving target” for Liberals trying to brand him, said Leone.

An attempt to paint Brown, 38, as a radical social conservative appears to have somewhat fizzled out and the party is now onto “flip flop” attacks and charging that he only stands for what is most politically expedient.

Brown surprised his party at its annual convention by announcing he supports carbon pricing, just not the Liberal’s cap-and-trade scheme.

As a backbench MP in the federal Conservative government, Brown did not support same-sex marriage, but last year led his party’s first official delegation in the Toronto Pride Parade. This year’s will be bigger, he says.

Premier Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s first openly gay leader, said she doesn’t know what his true views are.

“He’s trying very hard to tell people that he stands for something, but I think it’s very unclear exactly what he believes in,” she said in a recent interview.

But what matters more for 2018 is what the voters think of Brown. An important marker for a successful politician is that voters would want to have a beer with them, said Leone.

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Though the beer test should be switched to Red Bull for Brown – he doesn’t drink and has a fridge full of the energy drink in his office – it may not be going well so far.

Various newspaper op-eds have suggested the public doesn’t know the real Patrick Brown, and right-wing publication The Rebel posted a blog recently titled, “The trouble with Patrick Brown: ‘People want to be governed by a person, not an android.”‘

Brown said he attends myriad community events after regular work hours, gets in a few morning games of hockey or runs during the week, spends time with his two nephews and manages to see his 102-year-old grandmother once a week.

But when asked who is the person, not the politician, his answer is decidedly from the politician.

“Patrick Brown the person is someone who doesn’t cut corners, who is a hard worker, who loves family and friends and will not shy away from challenges,” he said.

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