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Canada Ontario PC leadership candidates seek to woo social conservatives

Ontario PC Party leadership candidate Christine Elliott participates in a question-and-answer session at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa on Feb. 10.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Some of the contenders for Ontario's Progressive Conservative leadership are looking to shift the party to the right as they embrace social-conservative issues in the final days of a bitter and closely fought campaign.

Two of the leading candidates in the race to succeed Patrick Brown as the leader of Ontario's Official Opposition have said they would rewrite the province's sexual-education curriculum and allow party MPPs to bring forward legislation restricting access to abortions if they form government. Striking the right balance between social conservatives and Tories focused on business-friendly policies has been an continuing struggle for the party during its nearly 15 years in opposition.

The promises by former Toronto councillor Doug Ford and former Tory legislator Christine Elliott come as both campaigns have sought to woo the party's socially conservative members in a race where both contenders are expected to be neck-and-neck to claim the leadership only months before a general election.

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Mr. Ford entered the abortion debate earlier this week when he questioned why teenager girls need notes from their parents to go on field trips but not to terminate a pregnancy. In an interview with the pro-life group Right Now, Mr. Ford said he would "welcome" a debate in the legislature to require parental consent when a minor requests an abortion.

"I understand that this is an important issue for all Ontarians. I believe in the sanctity of life, but I value the right that all Canadians have to make this decision based on their own conscience and beliefs," Mr. Ford said in a statement sent by his campaign to The Globe and Mail.

He did not back away from his promise to allow MPPs to debate limiting access to abortion. "I will allow MPPs to draft, bring forward, and debate any legislation that is important to them," he continued, calling the debate over abortion not an issue of faith or ideology, but rather "an issue of liberty."

Ms. Elliott, who has previously made two unsuccessful runs for the party's leadership, said that although she is pro-choice, she would also allow MPPs to vote on restrictions to abortion access. "I understand that some people have views that are different than mine and I respect their right to express those views and to vote in the way that they feel is necessary," she said in a statement.

There are currently no provisions in Ontario that require parental notification, according to the medical regulator. Political newcomer Caroline Mulroney said she would not reopen the abortion debate if she won the leadership, while Tanya Granic Allen, a social-conservative activist, has said parents need to be consulted before their children receive any medical treatment.

Charles McVety, a Toronto-based evangelical leader, has endorsed Mr. Ford's run for the party leadership. "He's not our perfect candidate in every way, and he wouldn't be seen as a social conservative, but he is someone who I believe fights for the folks," Mr. McVety told The Globe. "You can't get a better contrast to Ms. Wynne. When the incumbent has low support, you don't want to be like her, you want contrast."

Mr. Brown, who resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct in January, had captured the party's leadership in 2015 with the support of social conservatives. However, he reversed his earlier positions once he was leader and moved to the political centre. His electoral platform for the party, now largely rejected by all four candidates in the race, made little mention of social issues.

The problem facing the leadership candidates is that they need to secure enough support to win the party's leadership, without adopting positions that might become a problem in the general election, according to pollster Greg Lyle. "Do you win the battle and then lose the war? That's a risk. Depending on how you count them, only about 20 per cent of Ontarians share social-conservative values," he said.

While support from social conservatives might help a candidate win the party's leadership, it opens the door to effective attack ads, Mr. Lyle said. "It's a very dangerous thing when you're playing the game Doug is playing. It's the exact kind of Hail Mary pass the Liberals want to play."

On Tuesday, Tory interim Leader Vic Fedeli held his last caucus meeting before the party's next leader is announced over the weekend. After cleaning out "rot" that he had found in the party, Mr. Fedeli said he was leaving the opposition in good shape for the next leader.

"I think everything the new leader needs on Saturday to go into an election will be in place," he told The Globe. After fixing the party's IT system, which was hacked last year, and dropping a lawsuit against a party activist, he said he was ready to turn over the keys. "It's been made incredibly robust."

Tanya Granic Allen says she aims to be a voice for those who felt “disenfranchised” by former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown. Leadership candidates for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives spoke after their second debate on Wednesday. The Canadian Press
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