Social conservatives say their voice is being ignored at Ontario Tory convention

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Chief of Staff Dean French share a joke as they wait to hear Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speak at the Ontario PC Convention in Toronto on Saturday, November 17, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Prominent social conservatives within Ontario's Progressive Conservative party say their voices are being ignored at this weekend's policy convention, once again exposing cracks in a coalition that helped propel the party to a massive election win earlier this year.

Jack Fonseca of the social conservative group Campaign Life Coalition and Tanya Granic Allen, a parental rights advocate and former Tory leadership candidate, have both expressed frustration that dozens of policy resolutions with a social conservative bent were blocked from being debated by party members at the event in Etobicoke, Ont.

The exclusion of the proposals has rekindled fears amongst some social conservatives that their voices will once again be marginalized, as they said the party had done under former Tory leader Patrick Brown.

"Our take on this is that liberal-progressive elements within the party establishment that are corrupt and against democratic rights of party members have filtered out policy resolutions that were submitted by grassroots members," Fonseca said, alleging party officials have "rigged" the debate.

Fonseca said the rejected proposals, which run the gamut from denouncing the Liberal sex-education curriculum to protecting so-called conscience rights for physicians, are in some cases actual policies that Premier Doug Ford's government is currently taking action on.

Fonseca points to one resolution that would affirm support for requiring parental consent in order to grant a minor an abortion. Ford made headlines during his run for the Tory leadership by supporting the idea, at the time expressing his incredulity over other politicians' fear of addressing the issue.

Fonseca said that resolution won't be debated this weekend.

"Doug Ford said during the (leadership) campaign that he supported that kind of legislation," he said. "He ran on that. It helped him."

Fonseca said Ford himself should intervene and ensure social conservatives have a voice during the policy debate. If the premier doesn't, he risks damaging the coalition that helped him win the spring vote, Fonseca said.

"It will be seen by social conservatives as a betrayal by the party," he said. "I seriously believe it would put at risk a second-term majority government for the Ford PCs."

Granic Allen said a number of policy resolutions she submitted for debate were also rejected by the party.

"The majority of what one would describe as social conservative (policies) ... just simply didn't make it," she said. "You'll have to quiz the party as to why. But of course, we're very sensitive because we've seen something similar a year ago when we saw these policies shuffled away at the Patrick Brown convention."

Granic Allen has had a tumultuous year within the party. After her bid to lead the Tories fell short, she was the only contestant who stood beside Doug Ford the night results of the vote were revealed.

Months later, Ford removed her as a candidate for the party in the spring election after controversial social media messages she posted were made public. Granic Allen said she hasn't spoken to Ford since then.

But she said many in the party hoped it had turned the page on the internal tensions that existed during Brown's tenure as leader.

On Saturday, Granic Allen proposed a policy resolution on the province's sex education curriculum which was adopted by party members. The resolution says the Tories should recognize gender identity as a "Liberal ideology" and remove it from Ontario's sex ed curriculum.

Party sources say while the resolution was passed, it is non-binding on the Ford government and passing it means it will be debated more formally at next year's policy convention.

The resolution was quickly condemned by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"I’m appalled that the Ford Conservatives would endorse a resolution that attacks trans people and their rights," Horwath said on Twitter. "New Democrats stand with LGBTQ people against this dangerous position that drags our province backwards."

Former premier Kathleen Wynne also slammed the resolution, calling it a "direct endorsement of discrimination" by Ford's government and calling on the premier to denounce it.

"It is dangerous, reckless and irresponsible for a political party to endorse discrimination and tell people that how they identify themselves is not real," she said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton, who has been a voice for social conservatives in the past, said Ford has worked hard to unite the party.

"I think when you look back in history, whether it was Mike Harris, Stephen Harper, Doug Ford, the most successful conservative leaders in our time have been successful in bringing that coalition together," he said. "Premier Ford, I think, has done a great job as someone who is a fiscal conservative who stands up for families."

Ford's office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Western University political science professor Cristine de Clercy said every political party is a coalition of different factions, so the Tories' internal struggles are no surprise. But this weekend's policy convention will be Ford's first challenge when it comes to reinforcing unity.

"It's time to pay the piper," said de Clercy. "Mr. Ford has the difficult task of allocating a still relatively small basket of resources to quite a large demand for reward."

Wilfrid Laurier political science professor Barry Kay said the divide between social conservatives and progressives in Ontario's Tories is a "natural cleavage point." Many previous Tory leaders, including former prime minister Stephen Harper, have pushed social conservatives to the side in a bid to win more mainstream supporters.

"Those are losing positions," he said of many social conservative core issues. "Harper made a calculation in federal politics that winning was more important than being a purist on social conservative issues."

Kay said every conservative leader, including Ford, has the advantage of knowing social conservatives won't park their votes with other parties, even if they are ignored.

"My hunch is that the central PC party people...are just telling him (Ford) to smile at them and try to cajole them a bit — but don't take them too seriously."

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press