MORRISBURG – If there’s one thing the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidates can agree on, it’s the party needs a major rebuild.
For the first time, all five candidates were in one room – the Morrisburg Royal Canadian Legion. Roughly 150 party faithful were there for the Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry PC Riding Association’s Annual Harvest Dinner.
Monte McNaughton, Patrick Brown, Victor Fedeli and Christine Elliott are already in the race. Lisa MacLeod will kick off her campaign Oct. 19.
McNaughton, a London-area MPP, has been on a cross-provincial tour to visit all 107 Ontario ridings. He has two to go – Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins. “There’s one thing I’m hearing and the other candidates are too, loud and clear, is that the party has become too top-down,” he said. McNaughton says the party is continually coming up with “disastrous platform planks and it’s killing us,” referring to then-leader John Tory’s defeat in 2007 on faith-based funding for schools and Tim Hudak’s loss this year on cutting 100,000 government jobs. McNaughton wants to see party members vote on the election party platform. He attributes the top-down mentality to the membership base drying up from 105,000 in 2002 to 10,000 today.
Barrie-area MP Patrick Brown was blunt in his opening address. “We’re good at shooting our own feet.” Brown says the party policy is broken and candidates should never be blindsided during an election campaign. “We need to start playing as a team in this party and that certainly hasn’t been the culture,” he said. Brown believes the Progressive Conservatives need to reconnect with young voters on college and university campuses as well as new Canadians. “We need to fundamentally change the culture of our party.” But Brown cautioned that as the rebuilding begins “we don’t loose a sense of what we are” saying the party can’t move to center-left or voters will vote Liberal again. “We can win and run as conservatives but the key thing is to make sure we build a bigger tent, that we reach out to get more volunteers. I never want to see this party out-spent and out-organized again and that’s what happened.”
Nipissing MPP Victor Fedeli wants to restore pride in being a Progressive Conservative. “I’m tired of losing elections,” he told party members. Like McNaughton, the former North Bay mayor believes the party should vote on the election platform and it should be done by secret ballot at party conventions so members won’t feel pressure from their colleagues. Fedeli also held out an political olive branch, saying that PC’s should support Liberal ideas if it helps the province and are not wedge issues. “I think people will start to be less cynical about us and will see us as being part of an active government.”
Christine Elliott says there’s a lot of work to rebuilding the party from “the outside in” by reaching out to new Canadians, youth, women and newcomers. The Whitby-Oshawa MPP says there also needs to be a better relationship with unions. “What we really need to do, I think, is engage them (unions) in respectful discussions,” she said. Elliott says the party also has to stop creating “policy out of thin air.” She suggested there was too much talk about fiscal issues during the last election. “Unfortunately that’s the only message a lot of people heard from us.”
An upbeat Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod told the audience this summer was probably the most difficult time in her career, as she fought for Kemptville College, the horse racing industry, against wind turbines and against soaring hydro rates. “I had felt that we had let them down. I felt that I had personally let them down,” she said. But MacLeod says party members shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed to be Progressive Conservative. She highlighted building of Ontario happened under a PC government and the people are ready to build Ontario again under the PC’s. “We need all of you to be part of the solution in Ontario.”
The leadership race doesn’t officially kick off until Nov. 8. The PC membership drive will continue until Feb. 28, 2015. Voting by preferential ballot will take place May 3 and 7. The results will be released May 9, 2015.