On­tario PCs have rea­son to fret over Brown

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - NEWS - ADAM RADWANSKI arad­wan­ski@globe­and­mail.com

The Tories’ strong chances for vic­tory next year are be­ing put to the test by their own Leader and his ques­tion­able com­ments

There are times when the best thing an Op­po­si­tion Leader can do is get out of the way.

For Pa­trick Brown, this week might have been one of them. On Wed­nes­day, On­tario Pre­mier Kathleen Wynne ap­peared at a trial in which one of her for­mer top of­fi­cials and an­other prom­i­nent pro­vin­cial Lib­eral faced charges un­der the Elec­tion Act. Her mere pres­ence at the trial, months be­fore the next elec­tion cam­paign, should have been a clean win for Mr. Brown’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives, without him hav­ing to do a thing.

Clean wins, though, don’t come eas­ily to a PC Party that has yet to win a pro­vin­cial elec­tion this mil­len­nium. So, Mr. Brown made him­self part of this story, in a way that should be set­ting off alarm bells among pro­vin­cial Tories liv­ing in fear of their party blow­ing yet an­other winnable cam­paign against the bag­gage-laden Lib­er­als.

If Mr. Brown felt the need to say any­thing at all ahead of Ms. Wynne’s tes­ti­mony in the Sud­bury court­house, he could have said she had failed to live up to her prom­ises to be dif­fer­ent from her scan­dal-plagued pre­de­ces­sor.

In­stead, speak­ing to re­porters on Tues­day, he wrongly said that Ms. Wynne, who is ap­pear­ing as a wit­ness, was her­self stand­ing trial.

This was not a small or sub­tle er­ror, es­pe­cially from a lawschool grad­u­ate hop­ing to be­come pre­mier in a matter of months. The ob­vi­ous move for Mr. Brown would have been to walk it back as a slip of the tongue.

But when Ms. Wynne in­evitably re­sponded by threat­en­ing a defama­tion law­suit – some­thing she also did when an­other mem­ber of the PC cau­cus re­cently made a sim­i­lar er­ror, prompt­ing a quick apol­ogy from that MPP – Mr. Brown re­fused to say he had mis­spo­ken. In­stead, he dou­bled down, mock­ing Ms. Wynne for com­pound­ing the “sorry spec­ta­cle” of her tes­ti­mony with a “base­less law­suit.”

On Fri­day, Ms. Wynne’s of­fice said she will give Mr. Brown six weeks to re­tract his state­ment be­fore pro­ceed­ing with the law­suit. Ms. Wynne may or may not choose to make good on that threat, but the po­ten­tial le­gal ac­tion shouldn’t be the real con­cern for mem­bers of Mr. Brown’s party. Rather, it’s their Leader’s in­abil­ity to fol­low his own bet­ter in­stincts, or at least the in­stincts of the peo­ple close to him.

Speak­ing on back­ground about strat­egy head­ing into the com­ing cam­paign, two of Mr. Brown’s top ad­vis­ers sep­a­rately in­di­cated re­cently that they want to be care­ful to avoid go­ing over the top in their at­tacks on Ms. Wynne.

It can be tempt­ing for their party to show lit­tle re­straint on that front, be­cause, at pre­sent, the gov­ern­ment is un­pop­u­lar and the Pre­mier is re­ally un­pop­u­lar, with polls show­ing her ap­proval rat­ing un­der 20 per cent.

But the Tories, Mr. Brown’s of­fi­cials have said, are wary of cre­at­ing a back­lash to the back­lash, in which vot­ers who pre­vi­ously sup­ported Ms. Wynne start to feel more sym­pa­thetic to­ward her again.

That might seem far-fetched, based on where public opin­ion is cur­rently at, but there are po­ten­tial con­trasts at play.

Ms. Wynne is a 64-year-old grand­mother who, in her first cam­paign at the Lib­er­als’ helm, pro­jected a down-to-earth like­abil­ity. Mr. Brown is a very youth­ful 39-year-old with some risk of ap­pear­ing glib. Lead­ing a party that in re­cent elec­tions has been suc­cess­fully por­trayed by its ri­vals as too mean, and that has strug­gled might­ily to at­tract fe­male vot­ers, he has rea­son to avoid show­ing gra­tu­itous dis­re­spect to the prov­ince’s first fe­male pre­mier.

Mr. Brown’s be­hav­iour this week is not about to tor­pedo his chances or sud­denly put Ms. Wynne on the re­bound. On bal­ance, it was still a bad week for the Lib­er­als, and the com­ing weeks could be worse. An­other more se­ri­ous trial, in­volv­ing crim­i­nal charges against two of her pre­de­ces­sor Dal­ton McGuinty’s staffers re­lated to doc­u­ment de­struc­tion be­fore he left of­fice, is on its way. No matter the ver­dicts, On­tar­i­ans are get­ting a re­minder of the gov­ern­ment’s eth­i­cal woes.

But it does raise the ques­tion of whether the more that things heat up and the cam­paign draws closer, Mr. Brown and his team will be ca­pa­ble of the sort of dis­ci­pline they them­selves have iden­ti­fied as a pri­or­ity.

Just get­ting out of the way, once that cam­paign starts, won’t be an op­tion; as un­pop­u­lar as Ms. Wynne may be, Mr. Brown will need to demon­strate he is a suitable re­place­ment, par­tic­u­larly since the NDP’s An­drea Hor­wath may be able to make the same ar­gu­ment. But part of mak­ing that case for him­self may re­quire show­ing that when he has been dealt a very good hand, he has the ma­tu­rity not to over­play it.

PE­TER POWER/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Con­ser­va­tive Leader Pa­trick Brown, a lawyer, wrongly said Pre­mier Kathleen Wynne was ‘on trial’ in the Sud­bury bribery case.

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