I wonder if we should be so surprised that Patrick Brown was elected the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.
Political commentators — professional and armchair alike — certainly were when the announcement was made on May 9. Brown’s competition, Christine Elliott, who has a long history with the PCs, seemed to be a shoo-in.
Brown was comparatively an unknown, at least to casual viewers of the race. He was a Member of Parliament from Barrie with a record of backing socially conservative bills. Since his election to Parliament in 2006, Brown voted against adding gender identity and gender expression as enumerated grounds in the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code; for re-opening the debate on same-sex marriage; and in support of several measures widely considered to be anti-choice.
You could argue that timing is everything. The PC leadership convention came at the end of a week that saw parents across Ontario pull children out of school in protest of the updated sex-education curriculum introduced by the provincial Liberals. In the Toronto District School Board, there were 34,762 elementary school absences on May 4, the first day of the strike — a 144 percent increase from the previous Monday.
Brown is opposed to the updated curriculum. On Feb 24, he gave a speech at a rally in front of Queen’s Park in Toronto, calling out Kathleen Wynne for not properly consulting parents.
Many have pinpointed sex-education as a divisive issue for the party that ended up winning Brown the leadership. But Brown’s win isn’t one that comes down to just one issue or one political race.
Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto while hobnobbing with openly anti-gay Pastor Wendell Brereton. Ford refused to go to Pride all four years he was mayor, and while a good chunk of Torontonians hated him for it, there were others who completely understood it — agreed with him, even. He always denied any homophobia charges, and was careful — at least when he knew the public eye was on him during his mayoral years — to avoid saying anything that could be construed as homophobic.
It’s a game that conservatives have been quietly playing for some time. Though they have backed down from public fights on issues like gay marriage or abortion, there is, as Rex Murphy put it at the recent Manning Networking Conference, a code that they talk in. No politician who actually wants a shot at being elected will openly say they are against same-sex marriage, but they will talk about “family values.” They are still courting the conservatives who want to limit marriage rights, among others.
Brown, for instance, is quick to point out he has attended Pride events in Barrie. But when asked directly by CBC Metro Morning host Matt Galloway if he would attend Toronto Pride, he performed a feat of verbal gymnastics in order to keep from giving a direct yes or no answer.
Brown-supporter and former PC leadership candidate Monte McNaughton performed his own version when he sent out an email saying that Elliott was creating a “little pink tent” by excluding opponents of the updated sex education curriculum, but then told the Globe and Mail that he “never” had a problem with LGBT rights.
Social conservatism is still alive and well in Ontario and beyond, and any Tory worth their salt now knows to quietly appeal to these voters and give them space to express their own hard-right views, even if the politicians themselves don’t explicitly state them.
Brown is simply the latest politician to figure out how to do that.