TORONTO — Engaging voters in August when many people are focused on beaches, barbecues or back to school preparations is not easy for any politician.
Even more so for Patrick Brown whose first test as the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives involves running in a provincial byelection in the middle of a federal election campaign.
Brown hopes to win a seat in the Ontario legislature in a Sept. 3 byelection in Simcoe North, which borders the Barrie riding he represented federally until he resigned as an MP after winning the PC leadership in May.
Voters have no trouble distinguishing between the provincial and federal campaigns, and make it clear they are fed up with the Liberal government at Queen's Park, especially its energy policies and its decision to sell Hydro One, Brown said in an interview.
"People who told me they took Liberal lawn signs in the last election said they can't vote Liberal this time because the Liberals never brought up during the (2014 Ontario) campaign that they were going to sell Hydro One," he said. "They feel misled."
Advance polls open Saturday in the riding, the gateway to southern Ontario's cottage country, which makes it even more challenging for candidates to determine who is a local resident and who is a vacationer outside its main urban centre of Orillia.
The riding is peppered with signs for the provincial vote, mainly for Brown, who is up against Liberal Fred Larsen, New Democrat Elizabeth Van Houtte and Green candidate Valarie Powell.
Conservative MPPs have been taking turns knocking on doors with Brown in the riding to help avoid an embarrassing defeat for the new leader.
Former PC leader John Tory resigned immediately after he failed to win a seat in a 2009 byelection in Peterborough, which followed his loss in a head-to-head battle with Kathleen Wynne in Toronto's Don Valley West in the 2007 general election.
Premier Wynne has made two byelection visits to Simcoe North so far, and Liberal ministers and staffers campaign daily in the riding, telling voters that Brown is not as moderate as former MPP Garfield Dunlop, who resigned so the new PC leader could run for a seat.
"I think it says the Liberals are scared of having me in the house," said Brown. "You have Liberal cabinet ministers and caucus members essentially living full time in the riding and campaigning."
Deputy premier Deb Matthews sent a letter to 47,000 homes in Simcoe North portraying Brown as an extreme right winger who voted in Parliament "to take away the right of same-sex couples to marry and...to examine changes to the Criminal Code to eliminate a woman’s right to choose."
The Liberals say Brown's rhetoric doesn't match his voting record, but the Opposition leader insisted he would oppose any attempt to reopen the abortion debate and noted he was the first Ontario Tory leader to take part in Toronto's Pride Parade.
Brown also dismissed Matthews' letter and attacks from other cabinet ministers as diversions, saying Wynne is "ashamed" of the Liberal government's record and doesn't want to face questions from him in the legislature.
"Their allegations are an American-style political smear, and it's just because they want to change the channel, to smear others rather than having to defend their own miserable track record," he said. "I want to ask them why we have the highest energy prices in North America, why we're the most indebted sub-national government in the world."
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