Opinion: Ontario winds of change may reach Quebec

There is not a political observer or insider anywhere in Canada whose attention is not riveted on the ongoing Ontario Tory leadership drama and with good reason.

The country’s largest provincial Conservative party is in uncharted territory in many more ways than one.

That starts with the minor celebrity status that comes with some of the leadership candidates’ last names. Until Caroline Mulroney set out to enter the Ontario Legislature as the province’s premier, few considered that role as an entry-level political position.

And then there is Patrick Brown’s even more notable attempt at winning back his old job.

Brown is not the first leader to try to go down the road of turning a leadership vote into one of confidence. In the past, it has rarely ended well.

Joe Clark and Stockwell Day, to name just two examples, both put their jobs on the line in a leadership campaign and lost. Neither carried the kind of baggage that is loaded on Brown. More recently in Manitoba, former NDP premier Greg Selinger managed to win back the leadership of his party but then led his troops to a crushing election defeat.

The difference is that, in the above cases, the polls were not encouraging for the outgoing leader. Clark had lost power to Pierre Trudeau after less than a year in office. Day’s travails in the polls had dragged the Canadian Alliance below 20 per cent in voting intentions.

By comparison, the polls to date have continued to give Brown a better than fighting chance of winning the June provincial election. How much of that support, if any, is a symptom of a backlash against the #MeToo movement and the bid to root out routine acts of sexual misconduct from the workplace is for anyone to guess. In the circumstances, it is hard to exclude that potential factor from the mix.

There are some examples of a party courting implosion in the lead-up to an election campaign and going on to win it. The Parti Québécois under Pauline Marois went through some pretty dark days in the year before it won a minority government in the 2012 Quebec election.

But the PQ would not have fared well in an election held in the midst of its crisis. It was fortunate to have almost a year to paper over some of the cracks in its unity. The Ontario Tories, again by comparison, have so far maintained their lead on Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals.

The latest poll, done by Ipsos for Global News, reported that in an Ontario election held this week, the Tories would have won a majority government under any of the four main candidates to lead the party – including Brown.

The numbers essentially highlight the resilience of the tide for change at Queen’s Park.

When Ipsos tested a fabricated or random-name Tory leader (called Jim Smith for the purposes of the exercise), a plurality of respondents turned to the NDP rather than join the Liberal fold.

In Quebec, where no provincial party has the close links to Canada’s conservative movement that are par for the course in the other provinces, it is that resiliency that is emerging as a must-watch trend.

The tea leaves of the Ontario polls are bound to cause trepidation in the backrooms of Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal party.

It, too, will be going to the polls this year after a lengthy spell in government. Except for an 18-month hiatus, the Liberals have been in power in Quebec for most of the McGuinty/Wynne era.

The winds of change have been blowing in Quebec for some time and the ruling Liberals are running behind the Coalition Avenir Québec.

With half a year to go to the provincial vote, Couillard has lost control of the pre-election conversation. His government is on the receiving end of a backlash of its own making over the decision to strike a sweet deal with the province’s medical specialists.

Suffice it to say that the optics of provincial government led by medical specialists – the premier is a neurosurgeon and the minister of health a radiologist – signing a compensation package so rich that some of its beneficiaries admit to being embarrassed by the generosity of its terms are not great.

Couillard cannot hope for lightning of the kind that has struck the Ontario Tories to hit twice in the same year. If it did, the Ontario experience to date suggests it might not be enough to reverse a strong pro-change tide.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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