What is the goal of a political party? Is it to win power or is it to put forward policies that will be good for all even if they are unpopular? As Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives choose a new leader this weekend I’ve been pondering the question.
Ontario voters will elect a new provincial government in June. Or re-elect the current one. Political theorists would tell you that after 15 years in power the governing Liberals are on their last legs. The premier is personally unpopular and there have been several mini-scandals both under her administration and her predecessor’s. Taxes are up, services are down, and ill-advised policies have the electorate restless.
The PCs are the likely alternative, given that the socialist party still hasn’t shaken off the reputation it acquired when it formed the government in the early 1990s. It has a likeable leader, but this is her third provincial campaign, which isn’t good if the electorate is in the mood for something new.
The electorate has been in the mood for new before and the PCs have been poised to win, until their leader makes a policy proposal guaranteed to alienate voters and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The issue that decides things changes, as does the leader for each election (these days political parties don’t usually allow leaders to grow in the job – one loss and you are done. Except for the socialists – they aren’t expected to win, so their leader’s job is secure even when the party loses).
This year the Progressive conservatives have managed to generate controversy even before campaigning begins. Their leader was forced out a few weeks ago, after allegations of sexual impropriety. (Those allegations and the integrity of the media organization that reported them have since been called into question.) Rather than go into an election with an interim leader, the party hastily put together a leadership race.
Four strong candidates came forward, then, just before the registration deadline. One has a flamboyant past, one is a symbol of the status quo, a third has a famous name and the fourth, probably unacceptable to the elites, wants to talk about social conservative issues. (The experts all say that social conservatism is too divisive and doesn’t fly with the electorate.) Then the ousted leader announced he was running to regain his job. He denies the allegations against him, there are whispers of a plot within the party to replace him (he was an outsider when he won the leadership a couple of years ago) and the whole thing had a bit of the appeal of a soap opera. However, after a couple of days campaigning, he decided the comeback should wait until his name is fully cleared.
It struck me when the allegations were first made that the whole thing might be politically motivated. There were aspects of the media report that didn’t make senses. But in politics you are guilty until proven innocent (and not even then) and a party that wants to form government can’t allow someone to lead it with that cloud hanging over him (Donald Trump excepted of course).
I have this disturbing thought that alleging sexual impropriety is going to be a key weapon for political parties going forward. What better way to sideline an opponent than with unfounded allegations? By the time the truth is determined the competitor has been sidelined, and even if cleared there will always be that taint.
It is very easy to become disillusioned with our political system. People generally get involved in politics because they mean well and want to do good. However, by the time they advance to the point where they can have an impact, all too often their ideals have faded, and egos have replaced public service. It is sad – but still better than the alternative.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives will choose their latest “saviour” this weekend. I hope, for the good of the province and the country, that they choose well.