Next week in Vancouver, Patrick Brown, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, will speak to a group of gay, lesbian and transgender Tories about equality and how it doesn’t matter who you love.
The very next day, he will speak to another group, telling them that climate change is a threat, man-made, and he’s got a solution to combat it.
A year into his leadership, Mr. Brown, 37, is putting his own modern twist on the old PC party. A year ago, it would have been heretical for an Ontario Tory leader to endorse same-sex marriage or utter the words man-made and climate change in the same sentence.
“The beautiful thing about being leader of the party … is you get to act in accordance with exactly how you feel,” Mr. Brown said in an interview Tuesday. “You’ve got to be comfortable in your own skin.”
He was speaking in advance of his trip to Vancouver for the federal Conservative convention. Next Thursday, he is addressing the LGBTory group at their pub night. He supports their efforts to get language opposing same-sex marriage out of federal party policy.
The next day, he will speak to Canadians for Clean Prosperity, a non-government organization (NGO) run by Mark Cameron, a former adviser to Stephen Harper. His group was described recently in a media report as one that is pushing for market-friendly ways to fight global warming.
“It’s a lot of fun just being yourself,” Mr. Brown said. “Certainly, there were times in Ottawa where I would have taken a different approach [from Mr. Harper’s].”
Before becoming provincial leader last May, Mr. Brown served as the Conservative MP for Barrie in Mr. Harper’s caucus. He was criticized by his opponents in the provincial leadership race and also by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals for being a social conservative.
In 2006, for example, Mr. Brown voted with most of his caucus to take another look at the legislation allowing gays and lesbians to get married. He explains his vote as following a platform commitment.
But added: “Those stories of the Prime Minister’s Office being centralized … there might have been a little truth to that.” That was a reference to the command and control of the caucus emanating from Mr. Harper’s office.
And so, last year, Mr. Brown became the first Ontario PC leader to march in the Toronto Pride Parade. Then, at his party’s convention in Ottawa earlier this year, he surprised many delegates with his statement that climate change was man-made.
He recognizes now he’s making it difficult for the Ontario Liberals to define him.
“I think the Liberals are … struggling now to find out what their next smear campaign is going to be,” he says.
He knows, too, he’ll be creating tension within his own ranks as a result of these new positions, but argues that as a young leader, he is exactly where his friends and peers are. He says for them the debate over climate change and same-sex marriage is over.
“We all believe in equality and are looking forward to the day when it [the debate] is over in the federal party as well,” he says.
And he has a warning for the federal Conservatives, who need to make gains in Ontario in the next federal election if they want to come back to power. He says the federal Tories need to show that they “unequivocally support the equality of marriage and … frankly that we won’t simply criticize the Liberals on the environment but have our own … solutions.”
A long-time provincial Tory, who asked not to be named, said there will be critics of Mr. Brown’s approach; there will be some in the party who feel alienated by his more progressive positions. But, like Mr. Brown, he isn’t interested in rolling back the clock and believes that the angry e-mails will become fewer and fewer.
The veteran Tory does not believe that Mr. Brown is bringing the party to the middle. Rather, his views reflect what is happening across society now.
Mr. Brown says: “People want a reasonable alternative to the Liberals in Ontario. … People in past elections felt there wasn’t a real alternative. Now they see that there is a PC Party that … wants to be fiscally responsible but at the same time cares about the social infrastructure of the province, cares about protecting our environment and isn’t out of sync on social issues.”