COMMENTARY: Patrick Brown and Ontario PCs play it safe with People’s Guarantee
Is change the answer to Ontario’s many woes? Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is saying “Yes,” of course, and offering himself as the man to deliver it.
At the PCs’ weekend policy convention, the party unveiled its “People’s Guarantee,” a glossy 78-page platform document featuring Brown’s face on the cover and the word “change” on every single page. The term appears 14 times in the index alone, in reference to families and hydro and the justice system and schools.
It ought to be an easy sell. After 14 years of Liberal rule, many voters feel the province badly needs a reboot. Wynne’s promise to bring “fairness” to everything from hydro rates to wages seems unfair to the many voters who will suffer for it — ratepayers whose hydro prices will rise in coming years due to an “amortization” of the province’s hydro debt, small businesspeople facing higher labour costs due to an increased minimum wage, parents who feel the province puts the interests of unions before those of students.
WATCH BELOW: Patrick Brown lays out Ontario PC party election platform
Add to this the ethical issues that have mounted over the years — the gas plant cancellation scandal, fundraising conflicts, court cases involving high-profile Liberal aides — and there’s plenty of fertile ground for the opposition to till.
And despite this, and Wynne’s persistent unpopularity, the election is no gimme for the PCs. A recent Forum Research poll has the Tories at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 32 per cent and the NDP at 25 per cent. This is happening as Wynne’s personal popularity continues to sink towards the centre of the earth; she hit 12 per cent approval in the past year.
And that NDP number poses a problem for Brown, too. Despite the NDP’s clear program and likeable leader, Andrea Horwath, the Liberals have been holding her party at bay by leaning more and more to the left, stealing the NDP’s thunder on issues such as pharmacare, seniors’ care and labour conditions.
While Horwath and her party make a clear break with the Liberals on the energy file — slamming the government’s privatization initiatives as the cause of all the province’s hydro woes — that will not be enough to position the party as an electable alternative for progressive voters.
As for Brown, his platform seems bent on staking out a centrist path to victory. While the Tory leader slams cap-and-trade, he would have Ontario opt into the federal carbon tax “backstop.” He offers parental subsidies for child care but also pledges to create 100,000 licensed spaces. He would cut ratepayers’ hydro bills by 12 per cent — but redistribute most of those savings to the general tax base. He would not increase the minimum wage to $15 in 2018 but would maintain the increase to $14 that the Liberals are enacting in 2017. He would cap insurance fees for drivers, freeze school closures, balance the books and, oh yes, cut middle-class taxes by 22 per cent.
Apart from the last pledge, the People’s Guarantee pulls a leaf from the 1995 playbook of Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution (CSR) in style, but not in substance. The PCs have aped the timing of the CSR: get your platform out early, tie it to your leader and sell it hard. This is likely meant to counter the fact that Brown is not well-known to voters: the aforementioned Forum poll found that 50 per cent of respondents did not know who he is. Getting the platform out will help define him, and give Brown something to bring to voters’ doorsteps.
But the CSR platform paid off not just by framing the issues, but because Harris embodied the platform. Its slogans — Work for Welfare, Scrap the Quota Law, Tax Cuts for Jobs — fit Harris’ no-nonsense persona. The former teacher, ski instructor and golf club manager from North Bay appealed to voters who felt the NDP and Liberals prioritized “special interests” (such as welfare recipients and labour unions) at the expense of ordinary taxpayers.
Can one say the same about Brown and the People’s Guarantee? Perhaps — but perhaps not quite in the way the PCs intend. Brown is a career politician. After a short stint as a lawyer for Magna and a position on Barrie city council, he entered public life full time as an MP in 2006. Brown identifies himself as a “pragmatic progressive conservative,” which some say equates to “Liberal lite.”
Apart from the low tax mantra, many of his policies harken back to the Bill Davis era of benevolent government — something that Ontario embraced for decades but which arguably has infused the current Liberal regime as well.
In that sense, Brown probably hews close to the ideas he is advancing, but they don’t represent a radical departure from those of the Liberal government he’s trying to replace. Thus, when Brown calls for “change,” he’s not saying that government is the problem — just that this government is. Trust me to better manage your money, hydro, schools, hospitals and environment, he says, and all will be well.
The People’s Guarantee isn’t offering revolution. Just a changing of the guard.
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