TORONTO — The man who could become the next premier of Ontario hopes his first convention as Progressive Conservative leader will show voters how much he's changed the face of the party.
Registration for this weekend's annual meeting of Progressive Conservatives "is through the roof," said Patrick Brown, who promised there would be more youth delegates and more visible minorities than at any previous party gathering.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown delivers a speech to introduce PC candidate Lorne Coe after he won the provincial byelection in the Whitby-Oshawa. (Photo: Chris Young/CP)
"I think you're going to see through those that are there how the party has changed," he said. "We have more people who want to be involved, are eager to be involved, and that's a healthy sign for a party."
Brown, the former federal Conservative backbencher who defeated former MPP Christine Elliott for the leadership last May, said the Tories will start developing their 2018 campaign platform this weekend.
Historically PC platforms were created by "a small group at Queen's Park," and Brown wants this to be "the exact opposite" of that.
"I want this to be a grassroots process," he said. "I want to participate myself — I've got tons of ideas on how we can make Ontario stronger — but I want to involve as many people as possible."
He declined to lay out any of his policy ideas until he speaks at the convention.
Reluctant to criticize unions
Brown wants to avoid a repeat of the Tories' 2014 campaign pledge to cut 100,000 public service jobs, which many party members feel cost them the election that year and allowed the Liberals to be re-elected with a majority.
He's been reluctant to criticize public sector unions, and instead has been reaching out to police, teachers, nurses and others to try and bring them into the Tory fold.
"It's not a matter of playing it safe," said Brown. "I view the broader public sector not as an adversary but as a partner in that search for how to make Ontario more prosperous."
"I think voters are fed up, are frustrated, and I think the byelections are indicative of that."
One of the items on the weekend agenda is the election of the PC party executive, but an expected showdown between former MP Rick Dykstra and party veteran Jag Badwal for the position of president has been averted.
Dykstra will be acclaimed as PC party president Sunday and Badwal will become first vice-president, but Brown insisted it wasn't because of the very type of backroom deal that he used to condemn, and called them both good friends.
"They came to the conclusion they didn't want to hamper the unity and they preferred to work together," he said. "That was a decision they made on their own, and I certainly applauded it."
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The Official Opposition leader said voters are tired of the scandal-plagued Liberals, pointing to big gains in Tory support in two recent byelections they won, and he's convinced there will be a change in government in two years.
"I think voters are fed up, are frustrated, and I think the byelections are indicative of that," said Brown.
"As long as the PCs can be reasonable, thoughtful and put forward a platform that is about making Ontario stronger, we're going to be in a great position."
Federal Conservative leadership hopefuls will help raise attendance at the Ontario party's convention as they host hospitality suites and work the hallways looking for support for their still unofficial campaigns to replace Steven Harper.
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