Ontario PCs face big changes under Patrick Brown, an enigmatic Tory leader who supports carbon tax

His teardown of the old party complete, Progressive Conservative Leader began on the weekend to build in its place something bigger, greener — and more open-concept.

Brown used the three-day Tory convention, his first as party leader, to launch an ambitious, year-long policy development process designed to cull ideas from “anyone with a computer” in Ontario.

The enigmatic 37-year-old leader also began the task of defining himself for voters, stamping himself a pragmatist, and announcing his support for a carbon tax to combat climate change.

Noting that he was first drawn to politics because of his environmentalism, Brown called climate change a man-made threat that cannot be ignored by politicians of any stripe.

We have to do something

“We have to do something about it, and that something includes putting a price on carbon,” he told 1,600 delegates in his keynote speech Saturday night in downtown Ottawa.

He said a sensible carbon pricing scheme should be revenue neutral, and he criticized Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cap-and-trade plan as an ill-conceived “cash grab”.

Wynne’s plan, which will price carbon at about $18 a tonne, is expected to add as much as four cents to the cost of a litre of gasoline.

Brown’s policy direction, which met with tepid applause from delegates, was a clear signal that he intends to drastically change the party after four consecutive election defeats — even if it means alienating the party’s most conservative factions.

“I wanted to speak from my heart tonight and talk about the challenges that Progressive Conservatives need to address,” he later explained to reporters. “I see there being no contradiction in being a proud Progressive Conservative and believing that we have to do something on the environment.”

The decision to announce support for a carbon tax at the convention, he said, came with unanimous caucus support.

“I am going to be a Progressive Conservative who talks about the environment,” he vowed.

Brown’s climate change overture is part of a broader effort to rebrand the party and make it attractive to more Ontario voters.

RelatedDavid Reevely: Ontario Tories should listen to (some) of what football star Pinball Clemons had to say‘We’re going to be ready in every God damn riding’: Ontario Conservatives unveil new logo, change in tacticsOntario budget 2016: What the opposition and stakeholders think about the Liberal government’s plan

In his keynote, Brown made a point of inviting union members, immigrants, gays, lesbians, and the poor to join the Progressive Conservatives.

“It doesn’t matter who you love. It doesn’t matter if you belong to a union. It doesn’t matter how much you make. It doesn’t matter where you worship,” he said. “You have a home in the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario.”

Diversifying the party is an essential component of the Progressive Conservatives’ 2018 election strategy, which was presented to delegates in broad strokes. Campaign chair Walied Soliman told the convention that the party will not concede to the Liberals any group of voters: not teachers, nurses, public servants, union members or immigrants.

The campaign strategy, he said, will be based on hard work, energy, diversity, trustworthiness and pragmatism, and will not be driven by winnable ridings, wedge issues or polls. “Under our plan, there is no Liberal safe seat in Ontario,” he vowed.

You have a home in the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario

The party will open nominations for its ridings next January, well in advance of the late 2018 election.

Several speakers at the convention, including Brown, levelled pointed criticism at previous election platforms, and blamed old party brass for those gaffes.

“Never again,” Brown vowed, “will our candidates and volunteers have to defend faith-based funding or 100,000 job cuts at the front doors of Ontario’s voters.”

Those unpopular policies sunk party fortunes in the past two elections, and Brown vowed not to make adversaries out of public sector workers as former leader Tim Hudak did in 2014 by promising to slash jobs.

Brown was a federal Tory MP during the last provincial election, and won the PC leadership with little support from inside the legislative caucus.

Hudak did not make an appearance in Ottawa this weekend.

Key to the party’s 2018 election strategy is a wide-ranging policy development process that will culminate in a March 2017 policy convention. Policy chief Katie Richmond said the party will consult with party members and invite all Ontarians to offer their ideas on a website, forontario.ca.

“We are going to listen relentlessly,” she vowed.

Richmond said the process will result in the most grassroots-driven election platform in party history.

“The way we have strayed from the wisdom of our grassroots has been painful, and it ends now,” she said.

Brown told delegates that Progressive Conservatives can’t escape from the fact that they lost to Wynne’s Liberals when that party was weak and under police investigation.

The Ontario Tories have not held power since 2003, and have been frustrated by an inability to expand beyond their core support.

The party is also about $5 million in debt and must rebuild its finances in time for the next election campaign.

“We have to have the courage to say, ‘We must change,’ ” Brown said, suggesting much is at stake for the party and for Ontario.

The high-debt policies of the Wynne government, he said, threaten health care and education. The province now carries a “staggering” $308-billion debt, which requires $1 billion a month in interest payments; it is the third-largest government expense, he said, and robs money from schools, hospitals and people in need.

Brown linked fiscal restraint and reduced energy costs to an improved job market and a better social safety net. “Compassion and prosperity go hand-in-hand,” he said.

The Tory leader also used the weekend convention to pour cold water on the simmering feud between two high-profile local MPPs, Nepean-Carleton’s Lisa MacLeod and Jack MacLaren of Carleton-Mississippi Mills. The two have been jousting over nominations in Nepean-Carleton, which is being split in two.

The two MPPs appeared on stage together Friday night, and Brown publicly endorsed MacLeod’s re-nomination as a candidate in the next election.

The party also unveiled a new logo this weekend, and gave the stage to former Canadian Football League star Mike “Pinball” Clemons for what was billed as an official endorsement.

But during his 45-minute presentation — a mix of locker-room pep talk and religious revival — Clemons neither talked about Brown, nor why he’s endorsing the party. At one point, a party official reassured reporters that Clemons was, in fact, endorsing the party and wasn’t being paid for the appearance.

Clemons told the convention that the new Progressive Conservative party has to embrace liberals. “Real respect means this party has to make room for liberals,” said Clemons, who explained that leaders represent everyone and must respect all viewpoints.

Brown, for one, made it clear he’s at least comfortable with Liberal rhetoric.

In a television ad campaign, debuted at the convention, he tells voters over soaring music that, “I believe that better is always possible.”

Liberal party Leader Justin Trudeau used that exact phrase during his successful federal election campaign last year.

On Twitter, the prime minister’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, said Sunday he was shocked by Brown’s phraseology: “Just when I thought my gob could no longer be smacked,” he wrote. “Holy fricoli.”

About Andrew Duffy, Postmedia News