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Let The Attacks Begin

Patrick Brown doesn’t want to be a target, nor does he want his party to be one.

Like hockey’s most elusive players, he is taking the right strides to make his opponents’ job of hitting him and his party more difficult.

Many grassroots Progressive Conservatives still suffer from nightmares of how the Liberals and their surrogates have successfully defined Tory leaders and policies in recent election campaigns.

A big part of the coming election will be about who defines Patrick Brown and the PCs. Will it be Brown himself and the party, or will it be the Liberals and their third-party surrogates?

In June, the Ontario Liberals will enter their fifth election since Dalton McGuinty led them to power in 2003.

It is shaping up as a contest between the overexposed and the still unknown. It’s the 15-year track record of McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne versus Patrick Brown and … what?

One of the Liberals’ most trusted surrogates, Working Families Ontario, recently released new attack ads, indicating the group can once again be counted on to try to negatively frame the Progressive Conservative leader.

While some say that Brown’s public profile is not as prominent as it needs to be at this point, I think he appreciates some important lessons from past Ontario PC losses. The first is to understand who you are, so you can say who you aren’t, which is valuable given Working Families’ tactic of using attack ads to define PC leaders.

Brown has made crystal-clear that an Ontario PC government will not be a champion of social conservative issues. This removes a huge cudgel from the hands of Working Families.

Negative advertising works when it pulls on an existing narrative thread and embellishes it. However, attempts by Working Families to paint Brown as a social conservative with a hidden agenda will be difficult when a number of actual social conservatives are complaining Brown has abandoned them.

The good news for Ontario conservatives and moderates hoping for a change at Queen’s Park is that Brown seems comfortable in his own skin. His public profile will come; in the meantime, Brown has succeeded in defining himself with audiences as a progressive conservative focused on growing the economy, delivering good government, and helping those most in need.

Brown’s emerging political agenda seems a natural fit for him. This is good news because authenticity is the best shield a modern politician can wield on the campaign trail.

As an example, I don’t think Premier Wynne has ever looked more awkward than when she’s been called on to defend the Hydro One sale. I don’t believe it’s something she ever really believed in as a self-described “activist,” and her lack of authenticity comes across when she talks about the issue.

The other challenge for surrogates like Working Families is that the Liberals were forced to pass rules limiting third-party advertising during the formal election period and six months beforehand. This means the union-backed ads must run before many voters are likely to be paying attention.

Of course, while the Liberals would like to focus on defining Brown, they face the reality that they have hard work ahead to change voters’ negative impressions of the Liberal government. No campaign of attack ads and wedge politics will be enough to avoid having to defend a stale 15-year record in government.

Mike Van Soelen is a Managing Principal at public affairs firm Navigator Ltd., and has served in many roles for Conservative governments at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Sun on November 4, 2017.

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