Patrick Brown drinks a Red Bull every morning.
That's probably the most surprising thing I learned about the leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party after a half-hour chat early in June.
Even though we talked about a range of controversial issues, Brown seemed ready to bend over backwards to send home the point: I don't have a hidden agenda.
Which is smart politics, really. The PC Party hasn't had a great track record these past few years.
Christine Elliott, establishment contender for the leadership who fell in a huge upset to Brown, called the party's brand "toxic" during the campaign, a clear potshot at Brown and his supposed social conservative credentials.
Fellow contender, MPP Monte McNaughton, has been a dogmatic opponent of the province's new sex-ed curriculum, which would do such outlandish things as teaching children that gay and trans people exist and are human beings. McNaughton dropped out of the race and endorsed Brown.
Then there was Rick Nicholls, co-chair of Brown's campaign, who came out as a disbeliever of evolution.
Brown also got the effective endorsement of Campaign Life Coalition, a prominent anti-abortion, anti-gay lobby group. He was also said to have signed up a significant amount of socially conservative culture groups onto his campaign.
It all left the impression that Brown's surprise victory would be bad news for everyone but the province's straight white dudes.
However, Brown has worked hard to convey exactly the opposite impression.
Within weeks of becoming leader, his caucus in Queen's Park voted in favour of a ban on gay and trans conversion therapy, which has led to the suicides of queer youth across North America.
Then, in the face of criticism, he and several high-profile caucus members joined the Toronto Pride Parade, making him the first Ontario PC leader to do so.
When a social conservative radio host took aim at him and Lisa MacLeod, who was also a felled leadership candidate, the conservatives shot back with a surprising amount of vigour.
"Our party has turned a corner and there may be some people who don't like it," MacLeod told the Toronto Star, adding: "I am not going to kowtow to people who don't share my values,"
When Brown sat down with VICE, that's exactly the line he was trumpeting. While he was still reticent to sign on to the Liberals' sex ed curriculum, Brown didn't even dip a toe in the social conservative fountain when it came to LGBTQ issues or abortion.
An except of our conversation is below.
VICE: One thing that young people don't tend to line up behind are social conservative ideas. You've been painted as being a pretty ardent social conservative, whether it's abortion or gay rights or transgender rights. How are you going to deal with that?
Brown: I think sometimes how certain newspapers paint you is not necessarily accurate. The reality is I've always considered myself a pragmatic conservative. The reality is if anyone had done their research, I was the first Member of Parliament in the history of Barrie to attend Pride functions. And I did so because I don't care about your sexual orientation, your race, your religion—the only thing that counts in this country is the merit of your ideas. I feel that my ideas are very much in sync and in line with those of my generation.
But you have come out as pro-life, as anti-abortion. There's obviously some concern that if you become premier, that access to abortion services might be limited.
I disagree with your interpretation. You make a statement that frankly is incorrect. I have said that we'll not revisit the issue of abortion. I have said that I support gay marriage and whatever way someone can find love, I'm happy for them.
During the leadership race, you made a clear distinction between yourself and your opponent: you came out quite hard against the Liberal government's sex-ed curriculum. This is a curriculum that teaches about sexual orientation from a very young age or gender identity from a very young age. What problems do you have with that?
Well, I've said, first of all, there is merit to sex education. I think all the leadership candidates opposed the way the Liberals brought in the curriculum. It was just varying perspectives on what we saw wrong with it. I took the middle-of-the-road position, where some were saying more consultation was needed. Some, like my colleague Monte McNaughton, might have been more critical than I had been. My middle-of-the-road approach was this: The sex ed curriculum needs to be updated on matters of mental health, texting, consent. The curriculum needs to evolve, because technology has, and issues that are confronting us have evolved. But what I've said is, the Liberals promised consultation, it didn't happen; they promised a dialogue, it didn't happen.
I read somewhere that you're more conservative than Stephen Harper, that's how somehow described you. Philosophy-wise, where do you fit into all of this. You say pragmatic conservative, but what does that actually mean? How does your overarching philosophy look here?
First of all I, I think the only people describing me that way are probably people working for Premier Kathleen Wynne right now, because they're struggling to understand, frankly, the growth we've seen in the PC party. We've gone from 10,000 members to 80,000.
My approach has been very different. When there was agreement with Québec on reducing the interprovincial trade barriers, I applauded the Premier. When there was a Scarborough Liberal MPP put forward an initiative on Terry Fox Day, proclaiming Terry Fox Day, fantastic. That's a Canadian icon. When there was a Liberal MPP who talked about financial literacy for Brampton, I said you have our full support, because I believe financial literacy in schools is important. And more recently, I was a guest speaker at the police association. I went and gave a talk why I supported NDP MPP DiNovo's bill on PTSD, because I believe we need to take PTSD more seriously. You know, there's four examples right there where I have championed causes put forward by other parties. It's not about left or right. I think the only people that care about that paragon that you're describing are people that work at, you know, work down the street at U of T teaching political science. I think the average voter out there fundamentally only cares how you're going to create jobs, how you're going to make the quality of life better for families in Ontario, and that's my driving agenda.
This interview has been edited for style, clarity, and length.
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