Early on, as the Ontario Progressive Conservatives started to select candidates for the 2018 provincial election, members of Patrick Brown's campaign team quietly expressed admiration for the way Justin Trudeau's Liberals handled that process before the past federal election. Call it open nominations, with an asterisk.
Contests to carry the Liberal banner, one of Mr. Brown's advisers suggested, had mostly been competitive and free from central interference – helping to enlist new party members and build local organizations. But the Liberals also used central vetting to weed out a few candidates they considered problematic. And Mr. Trudeau and his officials successfully attracted an array of star candidates, some of whom then got help to secure the riding-level nod.
If Mr. Brown's Tories were aiming to replicate that model, it has not been a smashing success. Although they have signed up tens of thousands of new members, their process has been marred by allegations of vote-rigging – including in an Ottawa riding where the PC riding executive quit in protest, and in Hamilton, where there is now a police investigation. Despite party officials' alleged willingness to bend rules for preferred candidates, it would have been difficult until recently to name a single high-profile recruit.
But for optimists in the PC ranks, it was possible this week – after the nomination of erstwhile media executive Rod Phillips in Ajax, not long after Caroline Mulroney was acclaimed to run in York-Simcoe – to believe that maybe their nomination process is starting to produce a bit of momentum.
It might even be starting to bear a very faint resemblance to what the federal Liberals achieved, in one regard at least: helping their youthful leader overcome perceptions he's a lightweight.
Neither Ms. Mulroney nor Mr. Phillips is quite setting the province on fire. The daughter of a prime minister, accomplished in her own right as a lawyer and Bay Street executive, Ms. Mulroney has thus far been a cautious communicator as she takes her first plunge into politics. Mr. Phillips is well-known within the chattering classes, after a career that has included running the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and recently chairing both Postmedia and CivicAction, but it's doubtful he has much name recognition outside a few corners of Toronto.
But the Tories will be hoping this pair, and any other prized recruits they lure into the fold, will help build Mr. Brown's credibility in at least a couple of ways once Ontarians tune in closer to next June's election date.
The more obvious of those ways is in assuring voters there is a cabinet in waiting. The experience of the Liberals federally, in particular the struggles of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, has shown it's often difficult to predict how outsiders will fare if they go straight into senior postings. But candidates who at least looked well-qualified on paper helped Mr. Trudeau push back against concerns about his readiness by showing there would be others to share the burden of leadership.
Mr. Brown is a long way from being able to claim a similar team around him. But as evidenced by media coverage touting Mr. Phillips as a potential finance minister, he is closer than a couple months ago.
The subtler but perhaps more valuable way these sorts of candidates can help a leader set aside voters' doubts is validation.
The likes of Ms. Mulroney and Mr. Phillips have plenty of interesting career options outside politics. And if they want to run for office, they have lots of choice about when to do so, at what level, with whom. So choosing to do so under Mr. Brown sends a signal – if not to all voters directly, then to media and business leaders and others who wield influence – that serious people have been persuaded to take him seriously, and maybe more Ontarians should do likewise.
The federal Liberals did much more to validate Mr. Trudeau than the provincial Tories have done with Mr. Brown. They had far more than two star candidates. And beyond nominations, they enlisted an array of business leaders, economists and formerly high-ranking military officers and diplomats to serve on advisory committees – more credibility by association.
Even with Ms. Mulroney and Mr. Phillips in his corner, the Tories' nomination process has so far been a net negative in terms of perception, certainly within their own party. As they gather in Toronto this weekend for their pre-election policy conference, there will be some grumbling about the various rule-breaking controversies.
But when Mr. Brown takes the stage on Saturday for a speech his advisers hope will help establish him as a heavy hitter, he'll at least be able to point to a couple of other heavy hitters who see him that way. It could be worse; not long ago, it looked as though it would be.