Once a powerhouse in Toronto, the party is now barely visible in most urban centres. When you are hemorrhaging members — and running to be leader — you’re inclined to sign up any new supporters anywhere you can.
Which is perhaps why MacLeod and a couple of her fellow travellers in the leadership contest couldn’t resist the temptation to turn up, one fine weekend earlier this month, at a meeting of the Ontario Landowners Association.
This isn't the first time I offer some leadership and engagement advice to the PCPO. Unfortunately, I expect these words of suggestion to be ignored in similar fashion.
Here goes anyway.
There are two things happening within the PC Party right now; a leadership race, in which contenders want to portray themselves as the best bet to lead the Party to victory and a broader bit of soul-searching as, if they're wise, PC partisans are asking why they've lost traction and what exactly it is they stand for.
If they study the failings of their past two leaders (which I'm sure they're doing) they may have noted that both John Tory and Tim Hudak had a particular fixation with winning. With winning being the primary objective, everything else was stacked up to deliver a win.
Theoretically, this makes sense - it's about the system is supposed to work, right? Give the people what they want, with a bit of strategically picking fights to mobilize action - that's how winning is done, n'est ce pas?
John Tory tried the shiny baubles and put slightly new quotes of paint on old ideas (coal plants). Tim Hudak picked fights and positioned himself as the voice of righteous anger. We know how well these approaches worked out, don't we?
On the other hand, I imagine they'll be taking a gander at Kathleen Wynne's massive victory, even if secretively, and trying to reverse-engineer her success.
Kathleen Wynne's greatest strength is that she is a facilitator. She's incredibly engaging - not just charming, but when you speak with her, she listens. She takes notes. She follows up - and when she acts, the people know that their ideas and concerns were part of what fed that process.
I'd argue Wynne and the Liberals need to do more of this in rural Ontario; I'd argue the reverse for the PCs in urban Ontario.
With the process in place right now, contenders for the PC leadership need to sell memberships and have more people to vote them in as leader. As always, it's a race to the finish line - no time to engage, the rush is to close the deal, period. When winning is done, consequences can be dealt with later.
The problem is, filling bums in leadership convention doesn't necessarily translate into seats in the Legislature. If the ranks of the PC Party are filled with angry landowners who dislike the notion of culture change, will the Party and leader be beholden to their ideology? How well will that sort of message resonate in increasingly diverse urban Ontario, especially must-win places like the 905?
On Monday, Why Should I Care is having a discussion about Healing Ontario's Rural/Urban divide. It's a topic that should be incredibly relevant to the PCPO, given that they desperately need inroads into the GTA. It was in recognition of this twinning of culture challenges (the renewal of the PC Party and the need for renewal in Ontario) that we decided to invite PCPO leadership candidates to attend.
WSIC is a well-respected forum that continual draws "top-drawer" speakers while staying true to its purpose of helping everyone, regardless of rank or wealth, to get informed, get engaged and make a difference. The likes of Art Aggleton and Alan Fotheringham have been known to pop by and listen to the insightful conversations that happen at WSIC.
It's also worth noting that WSIC's founder, Terri Chu, is running for Toronto Council in Ward 20, and has a serious chance of winning. Terri has a strong reputation as a balanced, non-partisan voice that puts evidence over ideology. From a political positioning angle, it makes good sense to be seen engaging with her.
I can only assume the teams of the PC leadership candidates either didn't do their homework or simply couldn't connect why being WSIC speakers would be beneficial for them.
One never bothered to answer. Two agreed to participate quite some time ago, but backed out at the last second (yesterday, in fact) because of concerns they might appear as "lesser-thans" if the star candidate wasn't there. This may have been the strategic reason why the star's team never made any efforts to participate, either.
While efforts are being made even now to find replacements for the backed-out speakers, the message provided is clear: the Party is saying "civic engagement in the GTA isn't a priority for us" as individual leaders and their teams are saying "our commitments are only so valid as we see their value to our strategic branding, which is focused on headline-status, not grassroots engagement."
So here's my word of advice - don't do that. Don't play the game that has caused so many Ontarians to disengage from politics and with the PCPO in particular. Things have changed, and this "control the message" model is no longer viable.
Leaders engage; they go among the people, listen to the people and then bring them and their ideas together into a broader framework. They recognize diversity of ideas and of people as a strength, and nurture them.
Going back to the same well of depleted soil that has been homeground for the PCs since the days of Mike Harris is not a great strategy for growth.
There may be no immediate wins to be had at urban engagement forums like WSIC, but as with all gardening, you've got to nurture the soil before you can plant seeds, and seeds need to be tended to with care over time.
Forget the focus on own land, folks. It's time to be gardeners.