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The Globe and Mail

The Patrick Brown saga should be a wakeup call for all political parties

If two women had not come forward a month ago with sexual misconduct allegations, Patrick Brown would still be leading the Progressive Conservatives into this spring's Ontario election, presenting himself as the fresh-faced alternative to an ethically challenged Liberal government.

He still could wind up in that role again – leading, if far from fresh-faced – in two weeks' time. But the closeness with which he came to standing unchallenged should be deeply unsettling to anyone who cares about the strength of our democratic institutions, given what we are learning by the day about how Mr. Brown conducted himself as leader.

When he resigned in late January, the mess facing the provincial Tories seemed to find its broader meaning in plunging Canadian politics into the moment of reckoning about powerful men's treatment of women. And it still does, largely.

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But more and more, this saga also appears to be about something else, too: vulnerability of our parties to being taken over, in a way that calls into question what those parties are, exactly.

No party in memory has lived out the consequences of a leadership choice quite like the Tories are doing now with Mr. Brown. The causes for alarm are no longer limited to the two misconduct allegations. They also include a dizzying array of matters financial and organizational that keep leaking out: dubious nominations of candidates; a proposed $375,000 business deal with someone acclaimed to run for the party shortly thereafter; strikingly expensive lawsuits facing the party; inflation of the party's membership numbers; the increasingly peculiar picture around Mr. Brown's personal finances.

But just about any political party could have wound up in this position at some point, because of how they have evolved into entities ripe for takeover by relative unknowns who then have leeway to run them as they see fit.

Parties do not typically have exhaustive formal vetting processes to determine who is allowed to run for their leadership. In theory, the leadership races themselves are supposed to serve as informal vetting, with candidates' liabilities brought into the open as they take aim at each other. In practice, parties often have low enough membership rolls heading into their contests that an available path to victory is the one Mr. Brown followed in 2015: Flood the party with new members, at your disposal if you make the right deals with the right organizers, and don't worry too much about persuading stalwarts looking critically at each candidate before deciding how to mark their ballots.

Regardless of how the job is won, new leaders then tend to benefit from some combination of discipline, deference and slavish devotion to winning the next general election, afforded even by those who predicted before the leadership vote that their victory would be disastrous. They are often allowed, as Mr. Brown did, to stack their party's executive committees with loyalists, with no inclination to push back against any of the leader's wishes. They are almost never challenged publicly by caucus members who may gripe about them privately. The leader is the brand to be sold to voters and, in the absence of strong structures, that brand becomes – for a time – the party.

That time ends, usually, when the leader proves electorally unviable. But we are now getting a sense, courtesy of Mr. Brown's unusual pre-election resignation – and an ensuing stream of leaks from the party apparatus, after he went to war with it trying to get his job back – of what can go unchecked when the brand is still worth protecting.

It's anyone's guess what shape the party would be in, after a few more years of him managing it the way he did.

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Tories outside his remaining band of loyalists will breathe a sigh of relief if that question goes unanswered by virtue of Mr. Brown losing their current leadership contest – a race more about persuasion than most, since it's too quick for as many new signups as usual – to one of the four other candidates.

But they shouldn't just happily move on, if that happens. And neither should other parties.

Most leaders don't exploit the weakness of the parties they take over. But that weakness is now on display for all to see. Hopefully, the postmortems will point the way toward parties strengthening themselves – instituting the necessary structures and processes and culture – to prevent anything like this from happening again.

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