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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dear Patrick Brown:

Dear Patrick:

Let me congratulate you on your victory in the recent Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership race. You ran a great campaign and out-organized your opponent, mobilizing support from a diverse group of party members. You deserved victory.

I'll admit I am no longer a member of the OPCP, and sat this leadership race out. After grinding my teeth in frustration during the hapless tenures of Ernie Eves, John Tory and Tim Hudak, I had given up on the party and let my membership lapse. I have only so much political stamina, and I preferred to concentrate on the federal Tories, who at least had a chance of electoral success.

The fact that I didn't renew my party membership is, I think, a sad commentary on the state of the OPCP. The party needs to attract people like me. I am in my late fifties and live in rural Eastern Ontario. I was a long-time active member of the party, going back to my days at university. I am retired from a thirty-year career in the public sector. I am well-educated and well-informed - a far cry from the low-information red-neck stereotype that our opponents use to demonize Conservatives. I am also openly gay. If the OPCP loses supporters like me, it is forever doomed to fringe-party status, a rural rump party howling with outrage and preaching to the dwindling choir, while a succession of increasingly inept Liberal governments drives the province over a cliff.

The media have attempted to portray you as a social conservative, dredging up out-of-context quotations from speeches and poring over your voting record as a federal MP, looking for smoking guns. I'll admit I bought into this narrative at first, but you have handled these issues deftly since winning the leadership. The Toronto Star is complaining that you're not cooperating with their attempt to pigeon-hole you, so you must be doing something right.

You are young, multilingual, urban, and reasonably telegenic - the polar opposite of the current Premier. From the few appearances you have made since the win, you appear articulate and quick on your feet. What a breath of fresh air. I have reason to be cautiously optimistic now for the first time in years. Please don't blow this opportunity.

After each of the party's previous election defeats I blogged my advice to the PC brain trust in a fruitless attempt to point out what seemed to me to be obvious reasons for the losses, hoping that the party would choose a different path. Now here we are again. I've come out of blogging retirement to give the new leader my unsolicited advice. Here, in no particular order, are my suggestions.

Stake out your place on the political spectrum

Stop trying to compete with the Liberals for the mushy political middle. You're a conservative: start acting like one. The right side of the ideological divide is completely empty in Ontario and there are two big-government interventionist parties competing for votes from the centre-left. People are yearning for a clear political choice - if your platform is indistinguishable from that of your opponents, why would anyone vote for you? The Progressive Conservatives need to be the party of the right and abandon the left to the Liberals and the NDP.

Social conservatism is a dead end
Sorry to all the socons who may be reading this, (and yes, some of my best friends are socons), but policies aimed at social conservatives alienate the centrists and libertarians that the party needs to win elections. In his first election, Tim Hudak tossed out some policies aimed at the socon wing of the party (chain gangs for prison inmates, public sex-offender registries, "foreign workers", sex education) and walked right into the same trap that snared John Tory when he proposed tax credits for religious schools. Policies like this make the PCs look mean and narrow-minded, and are political poison to a lot of voters. Matters of morality and religion are best left to individuals and families, and heavy-handed law and order policies, especially in a time of declining crime rates, make conservatives seem heartless. Give it up. Concentrate on the issues that unite all conservatives - socon and libertarian, urban and rural, gay and straight. We need a party that relentlessly advocates for smaller, less intrusive government, fiscal discipline, low taxes, free-market economics and personal responsibility.

Stop running away from Mike Harris
Hudak spent a lot of time avoiding his past as a member of the Mike Harris government, and laughed nervously every time the subject of the Harris years was raised. Huh? Lots of conservatives still support many of Harris' policies, and believe that Ontario's dire financial situation needs a dose of the same medicine. Going out of your way to distance yourself from a man who won two consecutive majority governments for the PCs alienates your base and confirms to independent voters that you're not that different from the Liberals. Stop apologizing for the Harris legacy - explain it, own it, and be proud of it.

The media are not your friends

The established media are hostile to conservatives and have a vested interest in electing a Liberal government - don't count on them to get your message out. Ignore the CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star and concentrate on grass-roots politicking. Trying to suck up to the main-stream media is pointless.

Go negative

It's a mistake to think that the PCs can run a strictly positive campaign and still win an election. By all means, explain your platform and promote yourself as an alternative to the current government, but the McGuinty/Wynne years at Queen's Park have been a time of astonishing incompetence, fraud, mismanagement and outright criminality - it's time for the PCs to get personal and go for the jugular. Caledonia, ORNGE, eHealth, the gas plant cancellations, the Green Energy Act - there's a lot of anger out there and people are frustrated. Tap into it! And don't be deterred by Kathleen Wynne's inevitable attempts to avoid accountability by labeling her critics as homophobic misogynists; make her own her party's appalling record. Bring it up at every opportunity.

Don't attack civil servants

I spent my entire career in the public sector, and I can tell you without reservation that Hudak's promise to fire 100 000 of us was a serious mistake. Everyone in the province has a friend or family member who is a civil servant. Attacking these people and threatening their livelihoods makes the party seem mean and vindictive, and average citizens don't want to see next-door-neighbour Joe or Aunt Betty lose their jobs. I was a civil servant and know from personal experience that the public sector is bloated and inefficient, but trimming it has to be done sensitively and with respect. You had better have a plan to do this without coming across like Ebeneezer Scrooge taking away Bob Cratchit's Christmas dinner. The current system is unsustainable and costs have to be reined in - I don't think anyone sensible, including most government workers, disputes this. But there's a big difference between, say, promising a hiring freeze and a moratorium on new programs, and sending out 100 000 pink slips the day after the election. Most public employees are hard-working, dedicated professionals, and demonizing them is a mistake. From a purely practical perspective, you'll have to work with the civil service if you win an election, and you'll need its cooperation to implement your policies. Good luck with that if you've spent your time in opposition attacking the public sector and promising to fire thousands of government employees.

Don't try to be hip

You're young, so maybe this will come easier to you, but previous attempts to show that the PCs have street cred with the hip urban iPhone crowd have been a failure. Look - we have a Twitter feed! Look at all the "likes" we have on Facebook! An election is not a high school cafeteria, and no one except the CBC gives a damn if you've embraced social media, especially if you don't have any policies worth a tweet that are actually going to change anything. Fire your media consultants, clean out the cobwebs at party headquarters, figure out what the hell you stand for, and give people like me who are desperate for real change in Ontario something worth voting for.

March in a Pride parade

It pains me to say this because Pride parades irritate me to no end, but mainstream politicians are expected to publicly demonstrate their tolerance by showing up at this annual Carnival of Diversity. It shouldn't matter if you're there or not, but it does. Every single one of your left-wing opponents will be attending, and your absence will be noted, rightly or wrongly, as evidence of bigotry and intolerance. Rob Ford was pilloried for stubbornly refusing to attend Toronto's Pride parade. Then of course there's the fact that Premier Wynne is Ontario's most famous lesbian - she will certainly be there in her role as the Angel of Progress. Your attendance at Pride will go a long way to blunt criticism of the party, and show potential voters that you're not going to impose a puritanical regime on the province if you're elected.

There is tremendous frustration among the citizens with the current government of Ontario, and voters like me are desperate for a credible alternative. The PCs have failed to provide that alternative for too long.

Now, young man - go to it. I wish you well. I may even re-join the party.


Anonymous said...

Eric, good to see you writing again. You are right on. Since PB has not left a comment on your blog, maybe he hasn't seen it! Mail it to him. He should immediately hire you as an adviser. It's been a pathetic show, watching the PCs bumble through the last three elections. A trained chimp with a coin could make better decisions. You are the conservative they should be courting... thoughtful, with a touch of libertarian both socially and politically.

Barnsworth said...

I think you need to do an election campaign advice letter for the Federal Conservatives and Stephen Harper!