A hotly contested and problem-plagued leadership battle for the helm of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives came to an end after hours of delay on Saturday when Doug Ford was named the new party leader.
Party President Jag Badwal announced the results seven hours later than they were originally scheduled, saying Ford had narrowly eked out a win over former provincial legislator Christine Elliott on the third ballot.
Toronto lawyer Caroline Mulroney placed third, while social conservative advocate Tanya Granic Allen finished last.
Ford made little mention of the drama that dominated the convention, but focused instead on the June election in which he will now face Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne.
“I am so grateful for the support and the confidence of the PC members,” Ford told the sparse crowd that remained to hear the results. “We’re going to spend the coming weeks getting the party in fighting shape, because the people of this province are ready for change.”
The announcement came after 10 p.m., without any of the pomp and fanfare that was expected earlier in the day when hundreds packed a hall north of Toronto expecting to celebrate the start of a new and more positive chapter in party history.
Instead, after a 4.5-hour delay, the chair of the party’s leadership election organizing committee dismissed the irate crowd with a turse statement about the need for a review of the results and announced the issue would be resolved in the “short term” without providing any details.
“There’s a review underway of an allocation of a certain list of electors that needs to be resolved because it may have an impact on electoral votes,” Hartley Lefton said, his words increasingly drowned out by jeers and boos.
Lefton dismissed the assembled party members from the hall they’d occupied since late Saturday morning, saying the organization no longer had access to the premises.
William Coleman, a staunch Ford supporter, said he was angry at the party’s handling of what should have been a turning point and worried the delays and confusion over who won could affect the party’s image at a time when it is striving to appear united and authoritative.
“If we’re going to win the general election … stuff like this only makes things worse,” he said.
Others appeared undisturbed, saying the hurdles would be long forgotten once a leader was chosen.
“Whatever it takes, as long as we get it right and then we’re behind whoever the candidate is,” said Jeffrey Thomson, a longtime party member.
More than 64,000 votes were cast in the hastily organized leadership race.
Cristine de Clercy, an associate professor of political science at Western University, said the party’s laconic performance Saturday was “a dismal failure.”
“This was pretty much the most mishandled party executive communication exercise I’ve ever witnessed on television,” she said.
“This party is very clearly very fractured … That made it even more important that this executive running this election had to be perfect. There’s not even the latitude for error that a normal party might enjoy,” she said.
“Unfortunately the thing blew apart today.”
The contest was launched in late January after former leader Patrick Brown resigned abruptly amid allegations of sexual misconduct that he has consistently denied.
While all four competing to replace him have pledged to scrap a proposed carbon tax that formed a key pillar of the party’s election platform introduced in November under Brown, the race has focused less on detailed policy promises and more on the party’s culture.
Saturday’s delays and ultimate postponement were the latest in a long list of challenges that have plagued the party in the days since Brown’s departure.
The party uncovered issues with its structure, problems with its nomination processes, and discrepancies in its membership numbers, leading interim leader Vic Fedeli to declare he would “root out the rot” before handing over the reins to a new leader.
The party has since reopened two nominations in contested ridings and abandoned a legal battle with a former party member who clashed with Brown over the nominations and other issues.
The leadership race itself has stirred strife and forced party brass to defend their decisions on a number of fronts.
Chief among these were a number of complaints about the complex rules for the online vote, including repeated claims that the necessary voting documents sent via regular mail were not reaching party members on time.
Fedeli calls for unity in the party
The organizing committee extended the registration deadline three times and even gave members an extra half-day to cast their ballots, but such actions were not enough to fend off allegations of vote suppression and corruption within the party ranks.
A lawyer even filed a request for a court injunction the day before the convention seeking to delay the leadership decision by an additional week in order to give more members a chance to receive their documents and cast a ballot, but a judge dismissed the request.
At Saturday’s thwarted convention, Fedeli called upon the party to rise above the recent differences and pull together to defeat the Liberals in a scheduled June election.
“Our work does not end today because whatever differences (we have) as Progressive Conservatives, our differences are small compared to everything that unites us,” Fedeli told the crowd before the announcement was due to be made. “The real campaign, the real test, still lies ahead of us.”