Once upon a time the Progressive Conservatives were Ontario’s natural governing party, thanks to the Big Blue Machine.
Big Blue referred to the broad coalition of voters wooed by premier Bill Davis with modern campaign techniques — until the day he resigned and the dynasty dissolved. Post-Davis, the PCs lurched right with the wrong leader, Frank Miller, and lost their grip on the electoral centre.
Now, three decades after that fateful shift, the PCs are just three days away from declaring their next leader at a weekend convention. While the Big Blue Machine died long ago, a fresh debate about the party’s political hue lives on.
The hue and cry comes most desperately and destructively from MPP Monte McNaughton, the third-place candidate until he dropped out last month to back an equally obscure politician named Patrick Brown (who now claims to be the frontrunner). Together, they have teamed up with evangelical Christians to whip up parental opposition to Ontario’s updated sex education curriculum.
But back to the Big Blue hue. And cry.
Initially, longtime MPP Christine Elliott was the presumed frontrunner. As deputy leader of the party, she secured an all-important endorsement from Davis, who visited her campaign headquarters personally.
“You may have been known for the Big Blue Machine, but you can count on me to rebuild a Big Blue Tent,” Elliott told supporters, flanked by a beaming Davis.
Fast forward to the campaign homestretch: Last Saturday, on the eve of voting, McNaughton fired off an anti-Elliott tirade to thousands of party members mocking her Big Blue Tent and taunting her to “rename her tent the ‘Little Red Tent,’ or ‘Little Pink Tent.’ ”
Little Pink Tent? McNaughton’s outburst shocked fellow Tory MPPs, many of whom denounced his intemperate tone, and the italicized subject heading of his email: “Christine Elliott Trudeau???”
McNaughton refused to apologize. The Brown campaign insisted it had nothing to do with the missive, but pointedly declined to denounce it.
What’s the significance of the latest name-calling, colour coding, and code language?
It is a flashing amber signal for a PC party trying to get its bearings after losing the last four elections and ending up in the political wilderness.
McNaughton may seem like a marginal figure in an increasingly marginalized party. But in a close race, his core supporters could play a pivotal role in Brown’s march to the leadership.
There is method to McNaughton’s madness — energizing his evangelical base in hopes that a high turnout makes him kingmaker. And solidifies social conservatives as a powerful constituency in the PC Party.
Brown insists he is no social conservative. His top rating from the Campaign Life Coalition suggests otherwise: He voted to reopen the abortion debate as an MP in 2012. He also voted to revisit the law permitting gay marriage in 2006. And he rejects the sex-ed curriculum.
Elliott is far from a raging progressive on the issue — she once declared, in a February leadership debate, “Monte, I stand with you.” But she has walked a fine line, avoiding the large rallies where McNaughton and Brown cheerfully pandered to parents against a backdrop of homophobia.
When McNaughton finally endorsed him last month, a triumphant Brown tweeted, “You ran a principled campaign and I look forward to working with you.”
In fact, as the party’s labour critic, McNaughton led the discredited attacks against “union bosses,” taunting the “union elites” to embrace U.S.-style Right to Work laws. And he embraced the disastrous 2014 PC campaign promise to get rid of 100,000 public sector workers, writing a notation on an early memo: “bold, specific, great!!”
Notwithstanding those blunders by his newfound ally, Brown insists he will court labour unions — and persists in blaming Elliott (but not McNaughton) for the 100,000 job cuts pledge. And so while McNaughton has been ostracized by caucus — many MPPs wore pink on Monday to show solidarity with Elliott — he is now Brown’s closest soulmate.
In a campaign without any serious policy debates, sex-education has emerged, improbably and absurdly, as the defining issue — driving a dangerous wedge among party members. Brown’s past record and latest alliance suggest a readiness to flirt with social conservatism in a way that past PC premiers, from Davis to Mike Harris, would never dare.
They just wouldn’t go there.
Will the wedge work? Will the old Big Blue Machine be denigrated as the Little Pink Tent, or reincarnated as the Big Blue Tent — and reintegrated into the mainstream?