OTTAWA — Entire books could be written about the past week in the Ontario PC Party.
Sexual misconduct allegations have brought down its leader, Patrick Brown, and its president, Rick Dykstra. An interim leader, Vic Fedeli, was elected by caucus, and then an open battle was waged over whether to hold a new leadership race. A purge was carried out of staff members connected to Brown.
Senior party members have made public allegations of fraud and corruption within the party. On Tuesday, Fedeli suddenly announced he wouldn’t seek the permanent membership, and would instead “root out the rot” in the party.
All of this comes four months before the scheduled start of an election campaign.
With the help of party sources speaking on background, here is what we know and don’t know about the astonishing state of affairs within the Ontario PCs.
Will there be a leadership race?
Yes. That’s about all that can be said for now, as all of the rules are still being hotly debated.
The party’s executive has instructed that the race conclude by March 24 at the latest. Decisions still need to be made on the entrance fee (though it will likely be set high), the deadline to sign up new members, the campaign spending limit, and how the vote itself will take place (likely either online or through mail-in ballot).
Who makes the rules for the race?
Draft rules are being considered by a nine-person Leadership Organizing Election Committee, which was established on Friday and is chaired by Hartley Lefton, a partner at Dentons law firm who spent years serving as the party’s outside general counsel.
But ultimately it is the 25-person party executive that sets the rules. It will receive the committee’s recommendations on Wednesday, but could take a few days to decide. The acting president of the executive is Jag Badwal, who took over that position when Dykstra resigned on Sunday.
It is an open question whether Dykstra, a close friend of Brown, is still a voting member of the board. Past presidents have a position, but in normal circumstances it is the person who was president in the last term, not someone who suddenly resigned. The PC Party website has simply removed that position from the list of executives until the situation is sorted out.
Why does everything seem like total chaos?
There are warring factions within the party. When Brown won the leadership in May 2015, he came in as an outsider and spent two and a half years consolidating control and installing allies in key roles, including staffers, party executives, campaign organizers and nominated candidates.
With Fedeli in place, the party’s pre-Brown establishment is reasserting itself, but it doesn’t have full control. Some of Brown’s allies have been fired, while others remain in various elected and non-elected positions. Brown’s well-respected chief of staff, Alykhan Velshi, had resigned but was brought back by Fedeli.
More changes are likely to come. Fedeli’s statement on Tuesday that he wouldn’t seek the permanent leadership gives him credibility to fully investigate the party’s operations. “I plan to root out the rot,” he said. “It’s going to expose things, I’m sure.”
Party power brokers are also manoeuvring to get their preferred candidate favourable conditions in the leadership race.
Along with the power struggle, there is genuine disagreement over how to properly run a leadership race on such a short timeframe. The provincial election is scheduled for June 7.
What are the big questions right now?
The most urgent question is around the membership list. On Jan. 13, the party had sent out a news release saying it had 200,224 members, but there are strong doubts within the party that this is even close to accurate. (There were 76,000 members after the 2015 leadership race.) Fedeli has promised a deep investigation, including “a technical analysis, right down into the IP addresses where these came from.”
During a leadership campaign, candidates sign up new members and submit their lists to the party. The party then verifies the memberships and provides each campaign with one consolidated list ahead of voting. You cannot run an accurate leadership contest without an accurate membership list.
There is another burning problem: over the past year, the party has had a number of extremely controversial nomination contests where it was alleged Brown’s people were fixing the vote to ensure their own candidate would win. One, in Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, is the subject of a criminal investigation. It is possible the party’s investigation of its membership list will lead to nominated candidates being disqualified.
“In the five days I have been there, I will admit to you, our party structure is in much worse shape than we knew,” Fedeli said Tuesday. “You’ve all heard there are concerns involving our internal reporting, membership lists and the security of our information technology systems.”
And finally, of course, there is the question of who will run. The only declared candidate so far is Doug Ford. Other rumoured candidates will likely wait until the rules are set before declaring. Of the four people who challenged Brown in the 2015 race, three have said they will not enter this one: Fedeli, Lisa MacLeod and Monte McNaughton.
The fourth candidate, and Brown’s only rival by the end, was Christine Elliott. She resigned as an MPP in August 2015, and was later appointed by Premier Kathleen Wynne as the province’s ombudsman for hospital patients. Elliott has so far remained quiet about her intentions.