This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on January 25, 2018.
In the poker game of politics, human frailty remains a trump card.
Despite the emotionally charged tone of the #MeToo movement and the rush to judgment enabled by social media, voters, for the most part, understand that bad things – and bad people – happen to good organizations. They can accept that one allegedly rotten party leader does not necessarily spoil the whole Tory basket.
The ability to preserve the reputation of a brand and contain structural damage is greater when the basic tenets of containment strategy are followed. This applies equally in the private, public and political sectors and we’ve seen it unfurl repeatedly – and with varying degrees of success – in recent months: Identify and publicly dispose of the alleged perpetrator; acknowledge and support victims; encourage other victims to step forward; review policies and protocols; make and announce appropriate amendments; commit to a transparent and accountable culture. Turn the corner, drive on.
The case of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario is, however, a little more complicated than that.
First, there is the awkward fact that, as in many other such cases, there were unsubstantiated rumours circulating as far back as Patrick Brown’s 2015 campaign for leadership of the party. In the past, it’s been possible to dismiss these matters as partisan backbiting. But the compound interest on denial and disregard has proven dear in every case from Harvey Weinstein to Roy Moore.
The Tories will have to confront that back story before they move forward and it’s not going to be a pleasant process for anyone directly – or indirectly – involved. To turn the adage on its head, a receding tide strands all boats.
On a practical front, there is the matter of the Election Statute Law Amendment Act, 2005.
Then-premier Dalton McGuinty introduced the legislation, fixing provincial election dates in the fall. Electoral reforms introduced in 2016 moved that date to June with a view to ostensibly improve voter turnout when the days are warmer and longer.
That fixed date re-doubles the logistical challenge facing the provincial Tories – especially given that their opponent, Premier Kathleen Wynne, is a seasoned and shrewd retail politician. Even prior to these allegations, the Premier has been gaining ground in the polls. Her carefully calibrated press conference in light of the allegations against Mr. Brown once again demonstrated her political savvy.
The Tory task is even more daunting given that all existing policies and platforms were custom-built by and for a Patrick Brown campaign. That means the positions have got to be sufficiently consistent yet different, to preserve core voter support while establishing an appropriate distance from their now-disgraced leader.
But the challenge is not insurmountable if focus and discipline prevail. And that is a big “if” in any campaign.
The Tory party has 200,000 members and has, to date, been outpacing both the Liberals and NDP in fundraising. The Liberals are at a historically low-ebb, and Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats have failed to break through in several by-elections.
The Tories have, furthermore, recruited several high-profile candidates and have a number of caucus members with solid election experience. There is also a wealth of exiled federal Tory talent upon which the Ontario party can draw.
If this endeavour is to succeed, between now and June 7, the Tories must settle on a party leader and a new leadership team, continue to raise campaign funds, review and renovate their policies, burnish their tarnished brand and reassure voters that they have the machinery in place to lead the province.
In other words, it is that rare moment in politics when actions will speak louder than words. And if the Tories can do all that by June 7, they will be resoundingly victorious regardless of whether or not they are elected by the voters of Ontario.
Deirdre McMurdy is a Principal at Navigator Ltd.