Pa­trick Brown: a man with no plans

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Bob Hep­burn Bob Hep­burn’s col­umn ap­pears Thurs­day. bhep­burn@thes­tar.ca

Pa­trick Brown is rid­ing high as he nears the sec­ond an­niver­sary of his elec­tion as leader of the On­tario Con­ser­va­tives.

His party is well ahead of the rul­ing Lib­er­als and the New Democrats in the polls, he’s kept the party’s vo­cal right-wing fringe largely in check, and he’s suc­ceeded in boost­ing the party’s fundrais­ing ef­forts.

If Brown can avoid a ma­jor scan­dal or mis­take, then the Con­ser­va­tives could well be headed to a ma­jor­ity vic­tory in the elec­tion set for June 7, 2018.

Not bad for a man who was a vir­tual un­known when he en­tered the Tory lead­er­ship race, but who won it eas­ily on May 9, 2015.

But se­ri­ous doubts about Brown’s lead­er­ship hang over the Tories. He’s still largely un­known, with polls show­ing some 45 per cent of On­tar­i­ans “don’t know” enough about him even to say whether they ap­prove or dis­ap­prove of him. He also has a trou­bling habit of flip-flop­ping on some of the big is­sues of the day, such as the new sex-ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum.

A huge prob­lem is his lack of poli­cies. In­deed, he’s a man seem­ingly with no plans. While Brown can’t yet be de­scribed as a train wreck when it comes to pol­icy specifics, he’s done lit­tle to dis­pel the im­pres­sion that he’s un­pre­pared to be premier. Ob­vi­ously, the main job of an Op­po­si­tion leader is to op­pose the gov­ern­ing party’s poli­cies, not to present a stream of dif­fer­ent poli­cies. Still, Brown’s lack of pol­icy specifics to date on al­most every ma­jor is­sue fac­ing the prov­ince is stun­ning.

On hy­dro, Brown said in March that “in the near fu­ture” he would de­tail fixes to curb soar­ing rates. But then he back­tracked, say­ing only that his plans for hy­dro will be ready by the next elec­tion. In­deed, some of Brown’s at­tempts to show he even un­der­stands the hy­dro is­sue are shock­ing.

“An un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter” is how Michael Taube, a for­mer speech writer for Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper, de­scribed Brown’s al­most in­co­her­ent eight-minute chat about hy­dro rates on a Toronto ra­dio talk show in March.

On hous­ing, Brown is de­mand­ing Wynne take ac­tion to cool home prices, but doesn’t have any pro­gram of his own.

He talks vaguely of “cut­ting red tape” to speed con­struc­tion and the need to col­lect in­for­ma­tion on va­cant prop­er­ties. He also wants Queen’s Park to form an ex­pert panel to study the real es­tate mar­ket, which is the stan­dard po­lit­i­cal cop-out when lead­ers have no clue them­selves on what to do.

On health care, Brown says he would kill the new Pa­tients First Act that elim­i­nates Com­mu­nity Care Ac­cess Cen­tres, which over­see home and com­mu­nity care, and gives more power to the prov­ince’s 14 Lo­cal Health In­te­gra­tion Net­works. But Brown won’t or can’t say what he would do to im­prove health care.

On ed­u­ca­tion, Brown wants a prov­ince-wide halt on all school clo­sures. Some 600 schools may be closed in the next year. His plan to keep schools open is any­one’s guess.

On autism ser­vices, Brown is de­mand­ing the Lib­er­als pro­vide more re­sources for stu­dents with autism. But he doesn’t have any plan on how to do it other than have the gov­ern­ment put more cash into ex­ist­ing ser­vices.

Sim­i­larly, Brown has no de­tailed poli­cies on taxes, the econ­omy or in­fra­struc­ture. In ef­fect all he is say­ing is taxes need to be con­trolled, the econ­omy must grow and in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing needs to in­crease. Brown has al­ways claimed he won’t im­pose pol­icy on the party. Rather, he wants poli­cies to be de­vel­oped by grass­roots party mem­bers. To that end, the party will hold a two-day pol­icy con­fer­ence start­ing Nov. 25 at the Toronto Congress Cen­tre in Eto­bi­coke near Pear­son Air­port. All their web­site says is “Stay tuned for more in­for­ma­tion in the near fu­ture.”

Un­til then, the party has set up a web­site, forontario.ca, where any­one can sub­mit pol­icy sug­ges­tions, re­cruited vol­un­teer pol­icy ex­perts to work with elected MPPs on is­sues such as health re­form and or­dered each Tory rid­ing as­so­ci­a­tion to hold their own pol­icy de­vel­op­ment meet­ings.

They’re all de­signed as feel-good ef­forts to make card-car­ry­ing Con­ser­va­tives be­lieve they ac­tu­ally have a say in es­tab­lish­ing party pol­icy, which of course they likely don’t.

But that’s not lead­er­ship. True lead­er­ship means de­vel­op­ing and cham­pi­oning poli­cies that pro­vide a real al­ter­na­tive to ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grams. It means of­fer­ing vot­ers more than empty prom­ises of bet­ter days to come with­out also of­fer­ing a clear path for­ward.

Brown has done none of that in his two years as Con­ser­va­tive leader. It’s ques­tion­able whether he will have done so by the time vot­ers go to the polls in June 2018.

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