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Rights + Justice

Patrick Brown’s Cage Match with Pierre Poilievre

Nasty from the start, is the feud a ploy to shift attention from past allegations?

Steve Burgess 16 Mar

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

It is often said there is no such thing as bad publicity. It is also said that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Patrick Brown could probably tell you that the first two are bunk. He will now be testing the validity of the third. After a few years away from the national spotlight the former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party and current mayor of Brampton, Ontario, has entered the race for leader of the national Conservative party.

In 2018 Brown abruptly resigned as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Removed from the Conservative caucus, he then declared himself a candidate for the job he had just vacated, only to quit the race again 10 days later. Now Brown, who successfully ran for mayor of Brampton later that year, has plunged into the national Conservative leadership race, apparently intent on wearing the 2018 scandal as a badge of honour. “When the liberal media tried to make him cancel culture’s latest victim by smearing him with false allegations,” a recent campaign press release read, “he fought back to clear his name.”

Patrick Brown was born in Toronto in May 1978. When Patrick was still in diapers his father Edmond made a couple of unsuccessful runs for the federal NDP. Young Patrick would take a different tack, becoming president of the Progressive Conservative Youth Federation at age 19. Still holding that position Brown won a city council seat in his mother's hometown of Barrie in 2000. Barrie would continue to be his political home base, sending him to Parliament on his second try in a 2006 rematch against Liberal cabinet minister Aileen Carroll. He was carried into office along with then-new prime minister Stephen Harper.

Like Harper, Brown would remain in Ottawa until 2015. Unlike Harper, Brown found an off-ramp shortly before nemesis arrived in the shape of Justin Trudeau. While still a federal MP, Brown ran for and won the leadership of Ontario's provincial Conservatives. He resigned his federal seat in May 2015 and later won a provincial byelection in Simcoe North.

Five Conservative provincial byelection wins later, prospects were looking rosy for Brown. Then-Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne was cratering in the polls and Brown looked like a solid bet to replace her. Then came Jan. 24, 2018.

That day a CTV News story reported sexual allegations against Brown by two women, pertaining to the period when Brown was an MP. Four of Brown's senior campaign staff — his chief of staff, campaign manager, deputy campaign manager and press secretary — recommended that he resign. Instead he called a brief evening press conference and denied all the charges. The four staffers immediately quit, followed by a caucus revolt. Brown's statement of resignation was issued an hour after midnight. It had all happened faster than you could thaw a frozen chicken.

On Feb. 16, Brown was expelled from caucus. Was it over? Voter, please. That same day Brown announced he would join the race to succeed himself as party leader. Brown told his supporters the events CTV reported were “factually impossible” and promised to sue. He boasted of passing two lie detector tests.

In the days after Brown's resignation more reports had emerged — Ontario cabinet minister Lisa MacLeod said she had heard and reported allegations of bad behaviour as well.

Then Randy Hillier weighed in with a different set of charges. Hillier, a longtime political foe, alleged that Brown had breached provincial ethics rules regarding the proper reporting of income, and in his campaign finances. Ontario’s integrity commissioner looked into it and found Brown had violated laws.

On Feb. 26 the Toronto Star reported that Brown had interfered in a provincial nominating process, telling party officials to “get me the result I want.”

That same day Brown withdrew his candidacy. His rebound campaign had lasted 10 days. Doug Ford would win the party leadership March 10 and the subsequent provincial election on June 7, thus kicking off a whole new kind of circus. As much as they affected Brown personally, the events of early 2018 dramatically changed the course of Ontario provincial politics.

As for Brown, he announced he would concentrate on his crusade against CTV News, claiming defaamation and seeking $8 million in damages.

The Jan. 24 CTV report had contained two allegations. One young woman alleged Brown asked her to perform oral sex on him at his home on a night when she had been drinking. (Brown himself does not drink alcohol.) The other allegation was made by a woman who said she had first met Brown on a flight when she was 18. He had called her afterwards and offered to get her into nightclubs. A year later in 2013, the now-19-year-old university student was hired to work in his constituency office. She alleged that one night after a charity hockey game a friend of Brown's had given her free drinks at a Barrie club until she was “very intoxicated,” and that Brown, then 35, had later made unwanted advances at his home.

CTV initially reported that one of the two woman had been 18 at the time of the reported incidents but later amended the story to indicate that both had been of legal drinking age (19 in Ontario) at the time.

CBC subsequently reported that the staff worker was later invited to travel to India with Brown as his assistant. “You'd look good on an elephant,” he told her. Later, while running for the provincial PC leadership, she said Brown had mused about the political advantages of being married and said, “I wish I could find a 26-year-old version of you.”

In 2018 Brown had told supporters, “CTV News has been forced to admit key parts of their story were simply not true.... When the truth is on your side, you have nothing to fear.... Hopefully the media will be more careful when it comes to attacking someone on the basis of a lie.”

The suit was settled earlier this month. CTV apologized for misreporting the age of one accuser. No damages were paid.

Last Sunday, Brown announced his bid for the Conservative leadership. By Monday he was in a feud.

At his campaign launch event Brown criticized the former Harper government for its proposed niqab ban and “barbaric cultural practices” tip line. Fellow leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre immediately shot back: “Patrick Brown is lying in his attacks on the Harper government. There was no niqab ban.... What Mr. Harper proposed was that a person's face be visible while giving oaths at citizenship ceremonies. Patrick Brown lies a lot.”

Pugilism is Poilievre's default tactic — he's a guy who gets up in the morning, punches the clock, and then never stops pummelling. But he may have inadvertently done Brown a favour with his prompt rebuttal. Brown would like nothing better than to shift the battle ground away from past scandals to social and political issues. The question is whether Brown will find any solid footing there either.

Like Jean Charest, Brown is hoping Conservative voters will favour electability over ideology. He has favoured carbon taxes in the past (he now says he would “consult” party members on the issue) and says Conservatives should not be demanding “purity tests” of their candidates. He has also promised to pave the way for skilled immigrants to practice their chosen professions in Canada.

Brown seems to be attempting a novel sort of 21st century political hybrid — a rejection of reactionary Trump-style politics combined with an embrace of Trump-style shamelessness. Evoking “cancel culture” to attack critics of his personal behaviour, he has pivoted to a moderate pitch clearly aimed at Poilievre. “Conservatives deserve more than a leader who is an attack dog in opposition, but will never be prime minister because they’ve already turned off many Canadians,” Brown said.

Brown's attacks on Poilievre are likely to serve as dry runs for Liberal strategy should Poilievre win the leadership race as he is favoured to do. In the process Brown may raise his profile, keep himself in the news, and do some damage by helping to define Poilievre as extremist. But whether the strategy will do much for Brown himself is another question.

He will compete with Jean Charest for the Red Tory vote, which may or may not be statistically significant in 2022 anyway. And while Brown reportedly has a strong organization in the Brampton and Greater Toronto area, he also has powerful Conservative enemies like Ford, Hillier and Poilievre. Failing a Brown win, only a Charest victory would seem to offer him any shot at a place in a future Conservative government.

Current trends suggest that when the leadership race is over, Brown will earnestly announce his intention to spend more time with the good people of Brampton.

Steve Burgess is profiling the Conservative leadership candidates as they emerge. Collect them all!

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