Brown’s fall lucky for Wynne

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Ontario may go to the polls next June with a woman leader in every party. In a curious twist, last week’s harassment allegation may put a woman in the premier’s chair.


First published on January 29, 2018 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne must have been born under a lucky star.

Against all odds, she beat a Liberal establishment choice to win the party’s provincial leadership.

Then she parlayed her reputation as a straight-talking minister and a proud lesbian into the premier’s chair.

She confounded the pundits, sidestepping certain defeat after the departure of former leader Dalton McGuinty.

With a savvy, targeted campaign, Wynne snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

No one was predicting another Liberal victory lap in the election scheduled in June.

But that was before last week. Before Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown threw his party into turmoil following a late-night resignation stemming from allegations of sexual misconduct from two separate women.

Brown was the second provincial Conservative leader to step down last week.

Nova Scotia chartered accountant Jamie Baillie resigned early Wednesday morning following completion of a report into alleged sexual improprieties that surfaced last December.

In Baillie’s case, he resigned his leadership and seat immediately, claiming personal reasons for accelerating an already-announced departure.

Federal Liberals were facing accusations of their own, with a claim of inappropriate elevator comments by Alberta federal cabinet minister Kent Hehr who later resigned from cabinet.

As for Brown, he tearfully proclaimed his innocence and vowed to remain on as a member of provincial parliament to clear his name.

Until last week, Brown’s political future looked bright. His party was facing competitive nomination races across the province, usually a precursor to a strong election showing.

Brown was working effectively behind the scenes, improving his French and building alliances with key multicultural communities. It was Brown’s deep organization links into the Indo-Canadian community that prompted his surprise leadership win in the first place.

Brown was the primary beneficiary of a desire for political change. That electoral force is sometimes unstoppable.

But who could have foreseen the chaos that the Progressive Conservatives would plunge themselves into, with the daunting task of securing a new leader before an election looming in four months.

Even though most of Brown’s loyalists deserted him, the party’s decision to hastily dump him will not be supported by all.

The press conference suggestion by deputy leader Sylvia Jones that Brown’s departure was just a “hiccup” prompted an apology on Twitter. Some may even wonder whether the allegations, which date back five to 10 years, were a thinly-disguised leadership coup.

The Ontario Tory process was quite different from that facing the Nova Scotia Conservative leader. In Baillie’s case, allegations were revealed to party officials last December and they sought an independent review of the facts. Receipt of that report is what precipitated last week’s resignation.

The answers to numerous questions may never be revealed, as the party is trying to keep the names of the alleged victims out of the media.

That cone of silence comes with its own set of challenges. Two former Liberal Members of Parliament were effectively removed from their posts after engaging in what they claimed were consensual relations with two New Democratic Members of Parliament.

One accuser, whose identity was shielded, stated on camera that she had brought condoms on a hotel room visit to her aggressor after the couple had been drinking together.

Nobody condones stepping out on your spouse, and both Liberals were married. But surely an extra-marital dalliance is not a firing offence.

Nor does it make sense to put the harassment of employees in the same category as after-hockey member to member (literally) socializing.

Whatever the circumstance behind the Brown resignation, the fulminations that flow from his leave-taking will do serious damage.

Like it or not, we live in a leader-driven political world, and a party cannot possibly go into the election with only an interim leader.

That means the Tories have two short months to establish a new leadership process that has everyone’s support.

Even when they pick a winner, the in-fighting that goes on in a leadership race takes time to heal.

Add to that, the potential dynamic of a leader being done in by his own back room rivals on the eve of an election, and that could be a poison cocktail.

Hours after Brown’s exit, potential leadership candidates were out in the media making all the right noises.

At least four women are being touted as replacements, including Lisa Raitt, Christine Flaherty, Lisa MacLeod and deputy leader Jones.

In the end, Ontario may go to the polls next June with a woman leader in every party.

In a curious twist, last week’s harassment allegation may put a woman in the premier’s chair.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.