TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservatives won a provincial byelection Thursday in northeast Toronto, but it may have come at a cost.
The Scarborough-Rouge River race won by city councillor Raymond Cho was dominated in the last week by a Tory flip-flop on sex education. A letter distributed under party leader Patrick Brown's name promised that a PC government would "scrap" updates to the sex-ed curriculum.
It would have been a popular promise, Brown acknowledged, saying there was deep opposition to the curriculum in that riding.
But Brown disavowed the letter days later, saying he didn't know about it and actually won't scrap the curriculum despite what he calls a lack of parental consultation.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown delivers a speech in Ottawa, March 5, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
The Liberals seized on the chance to brand Brown a flip-flopper. But they also say questions remain about where the letter originated, whether it really was with the local campaign as Brown has implied.
Doug Ford, the campaign co-manager, said he did not write the letter.
"The hydro rates, the jobs, these pieces of literature, came out of here," he said Thursday night at campaign headquarters.
The Liberals have also questioned why Brown only retracted the sex-ed opposition in English media, when the letter was distributed in other languages spoken widely in the riding.
"Once again Patrick Brown demonstrated his unprincipled leadership by pandering to anti-sex ed activists a week before a byelection concludes, proving once again that he will say anything to anybody if he thinks that it is politically expedient," the Liberals charged.
Brown widely criticized for flip-flop
Editorials from both left- and right-leaning media outlets roundly criticized Brown, saying the incident either shows he can't control his team, he can't pick a lane on a relatively straightforward issue or was just telling voters what they wanted to hear.
The controversy comes at a time when Brown is trying to rebuild a party after successive electoral losses and take it in a new, modern direction and sex-ed opposition did not fit with that message.
The curriculum was updated last year for the first time since 1998, but complaints from some parents ranged from not being consulted enough to the lessons being age inappropriate to anger over mentions of same-sex relationships, gender identities and masturbation.
Opposing the curriculum could hurt Brown provincially, though it would have played well in the riding, said Chris Cochrane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus.
Liberals held riding since 1999
The Liberals had held the riding since its creation in 1999, but Premier Kathleen Wynne's popularity has been sinking, mid-way through her mandate. Her plan to privatize Hydro One has not been received well and voters are upset about rising hydro bills.
Liberal candidate Piragal Thiru had about 30 per cent of the vote to Cho's 39 per cent with a little more than a third of the polls reporting Thursday night. NDP candidate Neethan Shan trailed with about 27 per cent.
The byelection was triggered by the sudden resignation of Liberal Bas Balkissoon, who had held the riding since 2005.