OTTAWA - The long-term and immediate futures of the conservative movement were under scrutiny this weekend at the annual gathering of Canada's right-of-centre.
Candidates for the leadership of the Ontario PC party made their pitches to the grassroots and influencers in three separate panels hastily assembled for this year's Manning Networking Conference, with the leadership race perhaps the most urgent item on the conservative agenda.
The vote follows the resignation late last month of Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown, after he was accused of sexual misconduct. He denounced the allegations, which have not been verified by The Canadian Press, as "absolute lies" in an interview with Postmedia, adding that he's contemplating legal action.
"I think it's important for Patrick to come forward to say his view of what happened," leadership contender Christine Elliott said when asked whether Brown would have a future in the party if she were the leader.
"I know he is trying to clear his name. If he is able to clear his name by the time the election comes forward, then I would have no problem with him running as a candidate," said Elliott. "But that has to happen before, in my opinion, he should be able to run."
Elliott was the only one of the three PC candidates was asked about Brown's political future, and also faced far more pointed questions from the moderator about policy and her record than her competitors did.
Among the questions: whether as someone who was appointed by current Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne as the province's patient ombudsman, she's just part of the so-called Liberal "swamp" the Ontario PCs want to drain.
"Absolutely not," she said. "I've always been a proud Progressive Conservative."
It's Elliott's third time trying for leadership of the PC Party; she lost to Brown in 2015 and to Tim Hudak in 2009.
She said the key to her victory, and the party's at large in the coming provincial election, is to ensure everyone has a home in the Ontario PC Party, calling it a "big blue tent."
That's Doug Ford's goal too. He said Saturday he's confident he can translate a history of electoral success in Toronto into a win provincially — not just in his bid for the leadership, but for the Ontario PCs as a whole.
He cited his performance in Toronto's 2014 mayoral election, when he raked in about 34 per cent of the vote, finishing second to John Tory. That, he suggested, bodes well for his potential to turn Toronto's typically left-leaning voters.
Attracting NDP and Liberal voters is key, said Ford, as he claimed that much of the PC Party base comes from the left.
"Don't count out hardworking union people as being fiscally conservative," said Ford, the brother of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
The third contender, Caroline Mulroney, addressed the conference Friday. The relative political neophyte said her experience in the private sector would serve her well in a political leadership position.
How each contender proposes to win is a microcosm of the national challenge facing conservatives, who find themselves largely in opposition positions across the country: developing and putting forward the policy to expand their traditional bases of support.
One thing is clear — few feel a carbon tax is the way to go. Pledges to oppose it drew the most applause for each of the three Ontario PC candidates.
Conference and Reform Party founder Preston Manning has expressed his support in the past for carbon pricing, and he urged conservatives to move beyond just a simple disavowal of it.
"It's fine to criticize the carbon tax or to be opposed to the carbon tax but if that's all we've got to say, it's basically a negative reaction to stuff that Liberals and socialists have done," Manning said in his closing remarks to the event Saturday.
"That's hardly adequate to address environmental concerns."