Opinion | Patrick Brown and Jean Charest have a deal that could make one of them the next Conservative leader

The Conservative leadership race is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown — who is expected to announce his bid Sunday — and former Quebec premier Jean Charest — who launches his candidacy Thursday — have forged a pact, sources familiar with the strategy tell the Star. Could it lead the party to elect a more moderate leader?

The men have been friends for more than 25 years. Brown credits his involvement with the Conservatives to Charest, whom he met as a teenager while visiting his aunt, Charest’s next-door neighbor in North Hatley, Que.

The two have spoken at length about the leadership race. I’m told to expect neither will say a bad word about the other — a non-aggression pact, if you will — and that they will “publicly” help one another.

Their goals are similarly aligned: a united but more inclusive party that represents the country. Each anticipates the other’s supporters will mark him as their second choice on the party’s ranked ballots, and they may make that expectation clear when members start receiving their ballots this summer.

Charest will meet party members on Thursday evening in Calgary, the Conservative heartland and home turf of former prime minister Stephen Harper. Harper has let it be known that he doesn’t want Charest to be the next leader, and prefers Carleton MP and former cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre to take up the mantle.

Although out of politics for a decade, Charest has deep roots in the Progressive Conservative wing of the party. Elected in 1984 in Sherbrooke, Que., he became Canada’s youngest cabinet minister at age 28. In 1993, he lost a bid for the party’s leadership, only to take on the role after becoming one of just two PC MPs to survive a federal election later that year. He grew the morsel of what was left of the PCs while facing a popular Reform party until 1998, when he left federal politics to lead Quebec’s Liberal party in its fight against the sovereignists. Charest served as premier from 2003 until 2012, when the Liberals were defeated.

As premier, I have often butted heads with Harper. Charest opposed the federal Conservative government’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, and introduced Quebec’s carbon cap-and-trade system. He demanded increases to federal equalization payments, then used the money for tax cuts, and criticized the Tories during the 2008 federal election campaign for their cuts to culture funding.

Last week, an anti-corruption probe into party financing during Charest’s tenure as premier finally concluded, without charges, clearing the way for his candidacy.

Similarly, on Wednesday a dark cloud hanging over Brown was removed when CTV acknowledged its 2018 story on sexual misconduct allegations — which ended Brown’s tenure as Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leader — contained “factually incorrect” information and “required correction.”

Brown is expected to announce his bid for the party’s leadership in Brampton on Sunday. Somewhat of an underdog, Brown has come he shouldn’t be underestimated. A three-term Conservative MP who was never appointed to Harper’s cabinet or chosen as a parliamentary secretary, has surprised many political observers when he won the Ontario PC leadership in 2015 after out-organizing front-runner Christine Elliott.

Brown brought large groups of ethnic communities into the party’s fold, as well as firefighters and nurses. He said the party’s membership didn’t represent “modern Ontario,” and as leader, he sought to make the party more centrist, announcing his support for carbon pricing.

Brown is expected to repeat that strategy federally. He’ll need to sign up 200,000 to 300,000 party members if he plans to beat Poilievre, the current front-runner. While Brown’s network of allies focuses its efforts in Ontario, Charest’s team plans to ensure his dominance in Quebec. Could Poilievre win the leadership without winning Quebec or Ontario? It would be hard, but it’s not impossible — in the Conservatives’ 2017 leadership vote, Maxime Bernier won both provinces in the first round before falling to Andrew Scheer.

To win this time, Charest and Brown need to change the makeup of the party, and dilute the influence of hard-core social conservatives, anti-vaxxers, those who harbor Western grievances, those fearful of new immigrants, those prone to believe conspiracy theories involving the World Economic Forum, and those who don’t believe humans cause climate change.

But just because organizers ask new party members to support Charest or Brown as their second choice doesn’t mean they will.

Brown’s staunch opposition to Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21, a law that prevents those who wear religious symbols from holding certain public-sector jobs, may prove to be too big a challenge for some Charest voters — and Quebec caucus members — to overcome. Charest’s spokeswoman Michelle Coates Mather said he is opposed to Bill 21 and will argue that if the law comes before the Supreme Court, the federal government should intervene in the case. But that’s different than asking voters to support a candidate like Brown, who is seen in Quebec as meddling in provincial affairs by rallying city councils across the country to donate to legal efforts to fight the law.

Similarly, the tens of thousands of Tamils, Sikhs, Lebanese and Iraqis that Brown may sign up — whose communities tend to include many people with more religious and conservative outlooks — could prefer a challenger such as Leslyn Lewis, the MP for Haldimand—Norfolk and the favorite of social conservative groups Campaign Life Coalition and Right Nowrather than Charest, a pro-choice candidate.

Alliances and endorsements don’t always work as planned. Campaign Life Coalition told its members during the 2020 Conservative leadership race not to support Erin O’Toole. Still, many marked O’Toole’s name de ella on their ballots, giving him the victory. This time, Campaign Life Coalition is telling its members not to support Poilievre because he is “pro-abortion.” Will they still mark Poilievre on their ballots, in hopes of avoiding a Charest or Brown win?

It’s too easy to paint this Brown-Charest alliance as one involving a stalking horse. Brown will put a lot on the line, likely walking away from significant sums of money from CTV in order to put his lawsuit and the controversy behind him, and possibly closing the door on running again to become older in Brampton, where he is popular. The deadline for nomination papers in that contest is Aug. 19. The Conservative party chooses its next leader Sep. 10. Similarly, Charest is in it to win.

When Brown was in high school, he used to do his homework in his parents’ basement, which was plastered with political posters, including one of Charest. Now, it’s possible he’ll help his political friend become prime minister — or maybe it will be Charest who helps him.

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national political columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @althiaraj


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