August 29, 2015
By Rob Ferguson
ORILLIA—The last time an Ontario Progressive Conservative leader ran in a byelection, he lost and quit provincial politics the next day.
Patrick Brown, the former MP for nearby Barrie who won the PC job in May, is running hard in Thursday’s Simcoe North vote to avoid the same fate as John Tory, now mayor of Toronto.
Brown brushes aside comparisons, saying he enjoys family and personal ties that Tory didn’t for his 2009 quest in a neighbouring cottage-country seat also considered safe Conservative territory.
“Everyone knows I’m a Simcoe County guy. My aunts, my uncles, my parents live in the riding,” Brown boasts while knocking on doors in a posh enclave of lakefront homes near Highway 11’s busy gasoline alley.
“When I was a child we had a farm in Midland,” adds Brown, who pauses to banter with a supporter driving a Bentley and an accountant still fuming over the Liberal gas plants scandal.
Brown, who currently lives in Barrie, is in the process of moving to the municipality of Oro-Medonte, in the south end of Simcoe North.
The stakes are high for Brown.
He needs a win to lead his party’s charge against Premier Kathleen Wynne, her provincial pension plan, her partial selloff of Hydro One and credit rating downgrades when the legislature returns Sept. 14.
And he won’t get a paycheque from taxpayers — about $180,000 as MPP and leader of the Official Opposition — unless he keeps the seat in PC hands after the abrupt retirement of the popular Garfield Dunlop, who had held the riding since 1999.
The Liberals are trying to make the vote a referendum on Brown, painting him as a hard-right social conservative opposed to abortion choice and same-sex marriage given his voting record as an MP.
Brown has said he won’t reopen the abortion debate and notes that, in June, he led his party’s first official delegation to the Toronto Pride parade.
“His rhetoric doesn’t match up,” charges Liberal cabinet minister Brad Duguid.
The NDP strategy in the byelection is to rally voters against the Hydro One deal while Green Party candidate Valerie Powell is calling attention to protecting farmland.
Liberal candidate Fred Larsen, a retired Orillia teacher, doesn’t take kindly to Brown’s home-grown claims in the race overshadowed by the Oct. 19 federal election campaign called early by his former boss, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
“Garfield Dunlop used to be the local boy. In this election I’m the local boy,” Larsen tells voters in a middle-class Orillia neighbourhood west of a postcard-perfect waterfront park.
He blames Dunlop and Brown for what some voters consider an unnecessary byelection that will cost taxpayers up to $500,000, and takes issue with Brown slamming the Liberal government’s proposed pension plan as a “job-killing tax.”
“I find it ironic he’s qualified for a $45,000 annual pension” after nine years as an MP, Larsen says at an all-candidates meeting, accusing Brown of looking after himself and leaving the two-thirds of Ontarians without workplace pension plans to fend for themselves.
But the soft-spoken Larsen, a longtime Liberal activist and community volunteer who previously ran against Dunlop, finds himself on the defensive over Wynne’s sale of a 60 per cent stake in Hydro One to raise $9 billion for public transit and debt reduction.
The partial selloff is a “terrible thing” and on par with the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government’s decision to lease Highway 407 to a private company, Orillia resident Jim Todd tells Larsen.
“It was a money-maker,” Todd cautions as Larsen pets his housecat who has tried to bolt out the door.
“I’m mystified as to what to do … the Conservatives have a good toe hold now it seems,” Todd adds.
Running for the NDP, social work professor Elizabeth Van Houtte stresses she lives in Orillia, and urges voters to block the “reckless and short-sighted” Hydro One deal.
“You can send that message loud and clear by electing me,” she says at an all-candidates meeting.
While going door-to-door, Van Houtte — no relation to the coffee conglomerate of the same name — says she hears grumbling from voters about Dunlop stepping aside to clear the way for Brown, whom he slagged during the PC leadership campaign as not up to the job.
“They’ve said it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t smell good and they’re very disappointed.”
Bill Madigan, who is working on the foundation of a house as Van Houtte goes door-to-door on Orillia’s east side, agrees.
“I don’t like it. We had a guy who gave his seat up,” he says before co-workers call him away, declining to say how he’ll vote.
With quite a few front yards hosting federal and provincial election signs side-by-side, some voters appear confused when asked their thoughts on the issues or who they’re voting for — something Wynne feared before she agreed to a push from Brown to hold the vote before Labour Day.
Others are making connections between the two levels of politics.
Air Canada pilot Mandy Rominger, for example, politely tells Brown she was “not pleased” when the Harper Conservative government in which he was an MP passed back-to-work legislation to end a strike by her union.
Walking away after a friendly chat on her doorstep, Brown concedes the legislation was “not popular” with the many airline pilots who live in the area — so many that he notes it has the nickname “Terminal Four.”
June 2014 provincial election results
Garfield Dunlop, PC: 22,179 votes (43.96 per cent)
Fred Larsen, Liberal: 16,413 votes (32.53 per cent)
Doris Middleton, NDP: 7,846 (15.55 per cent)
Peter Stubbins, Green Party: 4,013 (7.95 per cent)
INFO FOR RIDING MAP
Map can point to main population centres: Orillia (30,586 population 2011, Statscan), Midland (16,572), Penetang (9,111).