By-elections tend to cause Ontario's provincial politicians to lose their brains. Steamrolling over local activists to insert star candidates, pandering with extravagant local infrastructure promises and viciously attacking one another, parties abandon all perspective about contests with almost no bearing on who holds power.
That makes it tempting to brush off the strange little drama that played out ahead of Thursday's vote in the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Rouge River – rookie Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown promising in a letter to some voters that he would abandon the sex-ed curriculum introduced by Kathleen Wynne's government, then disavowing that stand when it got unwelcome and hostile provincewide attention.
But to have watched Mr. Brown during his ascent to his party's helm and first 15 months on the job is to know that this week's episode, in which he had to backtrack quickly on an ill-considered attempt to win over immigrant communities by playing to fears about their kids being indoctrinated, was not a heat-of-the-moment blip. It was, rather, a window into what some Ontarians may find reassuring and others troubling about the man with a very good shot at being their next premier: a lack of core ideology that makes him extremely hard to pin down.
Since the end of the Mike Harris era, when they last ran the government, Tories in the country's largest province have frequently suffered for being perceived as too dogmatic. And Ms. Wynne's Liberals may well try to fit Mr. Brown into that frame heading into the 2018 general election – particularly by painting him as a regressive social conservative, holding up the sex-ed letter among other evidence of a secret social-conservative agenda.
But that is not him. Nobody who has worked alongside Mr. Brown, from his days in PC youth politics through his nine years as a backbench federal Conservative MP to his current gig, describes him as someone with much of a policy agenda at all.
What he is, according to those people and to some extent even himself, is a hyper-competitive, eager-to-please retail politician who views elected office as a chance more to channel others' opinions than to persuade them of his own.
That has its appeals, if you are of the view that all Ontario needs for the next election is a palatable alternative to the scandal-plagued Liberals offering a fresh face without a radical change in direction. You can appreciate that, unlike his predecessor, Tim Hudak, who was primarily interested in mobilizing existing supporters, Mr. Brown will advocate for just about anyone who might vote for the PCs – up to the point at which it might offend too many other people who might vote for them. You can even respect that when such a situation comes to pass, as it did this week, he is more willing than most politicians to acknowledge his mistake swiftly and reverse course. You can certainly understand how his brand of service politics got him re-elected with bigger and bigger margins in his federal Barrie riding, and hope he can take that approach provincewide.
Or you can consider the complexities of running the country's second-largest government and worry that it requires a different sensibility.
If serving as premier, he would again and again be confronted with unforeseen decisions. If he lacks the compass to come down clearly on a fairly straightforward moral issue such as whether the province should have a modern sex-ed curriculum, would he be able to respond quickly to more complex questions about how to ration health care, say, or what to do in a sudden economic crisis?
He would also be besieged, much more than now, by interests imploring him to take their side. If he was willing to tell sex-ed opponents what they wanted to hear, making a promise he abandoned only because it was exposed, how entangled might he become by attempts to curry favour that stayed under the radar longer?
If those are questions for voters to consider, Mr. Brown could also usefully mull them over. The curse of being a provincial opposition leader in Ontario is being ignored by most of the electorate between campaigns. The blessing, in this case, is some remaining time for a gut check before facing wider scrutiny.