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Ontario Tories shouldn’t believe their party's ‘clean bill of health’

From the moment the results of the contest to replace Patrick Brown are announced on Saturday, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives' new leader will try to present that party's recent woes as firmly in the rear-view mirror.

Sure, Mr. Brown's sudden exit revealed a PC culture in crisis – not just because of the sexual-misconduct allegations against him (which he denies), but also because of the inflated membership numbers, the litany of lawsuits, the candidate nominations that had to be overturned. But, hey, Vic Fedeli cleaned all that up during a few weeks as interim leader and now the party is stronger than ever, ready to squarely focus on beating Kathleen Wynne's Liberals in June's provincial election.

It's probably the right message. Just so long as the new leader doesn't completely believe it.

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Read more: Judge clears way for Ontario PCs to announce new leader Saturday

Nobody should expect, or want, the Official Opposition to spend the three months between now and the election self-flagellating. There is a platform to be redeveloped, advertisements to be produced, debate prep to be done, a contrast with Ms. Wynne to be struck. Very few politicians have had to do all that in the time afforded to Mr. Brown's successor, and distractions need to be kept to a minimum.

That's also good reason to hope that a losing candidate doesn't question the legitimacy of Saturday's result, as Doug Ford has at points hinted at doing if beaten by Christine Elliott (or possibly Caroline Mulroney). Flawed though this campaign has been – its hurried timeline and pre-existing administrative problems helping explain the failure to get some party members the information needed to vote – there does not seem to be evidence that the problems have benefited one contender over another.

But if the Tories cruise to victory over the unpopular Liberals, it will only mask some of the issues that allowed the debacle with Mr. Brown to happen in the first place – ones that could come back to haunt them again if left to fester.

Give Mr. Fedeli his due. His pronouncement shortly after taking the helm of "rot" infecting his party, which initially seemed hyperbolic, appeared increasingly defensible as an array of new allegations emerged about matters ranging from the use of party funds to Mr. Brown's relationships with nominated candidates and staff. Under the interim leader's watch, there was decisive action on some of the biggest controversies he inherited, including an overturning of two contentious nominations, settling of an expensive legal battle between the party and a grassroots critic of Mr. Brown's and cancellation of contracts with vendors deemed to be of poor value.

But can even Mr. Fedeli quite believe his party now has the "clean bill of health" he triumphantly pronounced this week?

Speak to party insiders and you will hear a few common if broad assessments of perceived gaps or weaknesses in the party's rules and processes that may have been exposed while Mr. Brown was leader – including around how nomination campaigns are run, how contracts are awarded, how human resources are managed and how the leader's expenses are dealt with. There is also a sense that the party's executive committee and its role should be strengthened, so that it represents the interests of the membership rather than serving as crony-stacked validation for the leader of the day.

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Among the leadership candidates, Ms. Mulroney has put forward the most detailed plan for addressing such matters, promising among other things new vetting processes, tightened rules around expenditures, the hiring of a chief information officer and a new sexual-harassment policy.

Realistically, even she might not focus on all that immediately after taking the job. And the others would be even less likely to spend much time on internal changes while doing general-election prep.

But it wouldn't take much for the new leader to send signals about taking seriously the need to modernize the party. That could include, for instance, appointing an individual or committee to review what went wrong under Mr. Brown's watch, and recommend specific changes to avoid it happening again – perhaps in time for the party's first convention after the general election, when constitutional changes could be made.

Getting that going quickly would seem essential, because if the Tories win in June, it will be much easier to consider everything about Mr. Brown's era ancient history. And they can't afford that.

Often, parties are galvanized to get their houses in order when relegated to opposition. The past couple of months have revealed that these Tories did not take advantage of 15 years' worth of that opportunity.

One shudders to think what government, with its temptations of complacency and excessive deference to the leader, might bring out in them if they completely lose sight of what is now behind them.

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Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore is urging Ontarians to consider the climate when voting in this year’s provincial election. In Toronto on Thursday, Gore said Ontario’s PC leadership candidates want to go 'backwards' on climate policy. The Canadian Press
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