The remarkable disarray of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives following the sudden resignation of leader Patrick Brown is more than just the confusion of a temporarily headless organization. The serious and credible allegations of sexual harassment against Mr. Brown and ex-party president Rick Dykstra meant they had to go. But the Progressive Conservatives' current mess goes beyond a sudden lack of leadership. It demonstrates a party with serious weaknesses and no common culture that will allow a quick recovery.
It is a far cry from its glory days.
Political parties in Canada are generally weak and leader-dominated compared with many other countries. But a partial exception was the mid-20th-century Ontario Progressive Conservatives, who won 12 consecutive elections from 1943 to 1985.
The PC dynasty was remarkable not just for its longevity but for its institutional steadiness, as it cycled through four leaders: George Drew, Leslie Frost, John Robarts and Bill Davis (plus one interim, Tom Kennedy). Each leader was important, but none was truly dominant.
Rather it was the party itself, a remarkable cross-section of big-city and small-town elites from across Ontario, that truly governed the province. The PCs of the era stood for few ideas, best captured in Bill Davis's infamous phrase that [being] "bland works." But they continually adjusted and retooled themselves to move with the times. This kept them comfortably in the mushy middle of Ontario politics and the "Big Blue Machine" won victory after victory.
Overwhelmingly old, white (largely Anglo-Saxon) and, of course, male, such a paternalistic operation would not be tolerated today. But the point is that there was a true party: an organization and general consensus that existed apart from the leader of the day. It was not anchored in any one part or segment of Ontario, and for its times, was progressive and forward-looking, rather than angry and reactive. Leadership races and party debates were not about ideology, but about who could best manage the party itself, and hence the province.
The dynasty stumbled and fell in the 1980s. The party then retooled and returned to power under Mike Harris in the 1990s. But the Harris years were one of ideology and polarization – a big contrast from the PC dynasty with the mantra of keeping as many people as happy as possible. The "Common Sense Revolution" has left an uncertain legacy for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Are they now a party of strong right-wing ideas? Or still the old paternalistic centrists?
The answer is both, and the result in the 21st century has been a weak party with a cycling set of leaders. Each has tried a different strategy, but the lack of a party consensus undercuts their credibility every time. Mr. Harris's successor, Ernie Eves, lurched between the centre and the right in his short term in power. John Tory replicated the centrist approach of the dynasty but was unable to convince much of the old Harris crowd and stumbled continually. And Tim Hudak drove the party off a cliff in the 2014 election with a Harris-style platform that made little sense to anyone but the conservative wing of the party.
Yet blame should not rest on the leaders alone. Rather, each struggled to unify a party that often did not seem to want to be brought together. Meanwhile, the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne have governed not unlike the old PC dynasty, comfortable with power and skillfully adjusting and shifting to ensure they keep it.
Notwithstanding allegations of unacceptable personal behaviour that rightly cost him his job, Patrick Brown probably selected the correct 2018 electoral strategy for the Ontario PCs in articulating an all-things-to-all-people platform that was right out of the dynasty playbook, presenting a change in faces, but not ideas, from the tired Ontario Liberals. Mr. Brown embraced the dynasty legacy, paying special homage to Bill Davis. Yet he was an outsider to the provincial party and his own political history was much more socially conservative than his new platform. Furthermore, his power was rooted in dubious new "instant members" rather than by cultivating the already divided party base. He was no Bill Davis. But neither was the party Bill Davis's party any more.
Any party suddenly losing its leader six months before an election is going to be in some confusion. But the chaos of Vic Fedeli's permanent-then-interim leadership fiasco, the instant bloodletting in the backrooms and the stem-to-stern review of its membership lists, all show a party that was already in bad shape, apart from its leader's behaviour. Even by the low standards of Canadian parties, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives are a shaky and uncertain organization that struggles to articulate what it stands for any more.