Views / Opinion

Martin Regg Cohn: Patrick Brown lived and died by the court of public opinion

Facing allegations of sexual impropriety, the former Ontario PC leader has become the fastest footnote to the province’s political history.

Patrick Brown suddenly resigned, this week, after a sexual impropriety scandal, just four months before the Ontario election.

BERNARD WEIL / TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE

Patrick Brown suddenly resigned, this week, after a sexual impropriety scandal, just four months before the Ontario election.

Patrick Brown, we hardly knew ’ye. Now, we never will.

The man who would be premier has become the fastest footnote to Ontario political history.

Public opinion polls typically showed his Tories in the lead, but most Ontarians said they had no opinion of Brown himself — a political unknown who remained unknowable.

All that changed Wednesday night, when CTV aired detailed descriptions from two women alleging sexual improprieties by Brown. As a teetotalling politician, they said, he targeted intoxicated teenagers — including an employee on the public payroll.

The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition protested his innocence — denying, explaining, pleading. Tell it to the Queen.

Brown then shifted from denial to defiance and digging in, threatening to shut down the accusations through “my attorneys.”

Within minutes, his top political staff publicly announced their resignations. Within hours, Brown acceded to a caucus ultimatum and quit in the middle of the night.

Brown had been morally and mortally wounded.

First, his alleged trolling for teens has an echo of Alabama’s Roy Moore, the Bible-thumping hypocrite whose underage victims exposed him before he could be elected to the U.S. Senate.

Second, by his own dissembling and betrayal of the Tory team. Confronted by senior staff, Brown couldn’t keep his story straight, prompting them to recommend he resign for the good of the party — advice he rejected by trying to bluff his way through.

Third, by his inability to show leadership when under fire. Quite apart from whether Brown is guilty of anything, he responded to his first crisis situation like a deer — no, a fawn — caught in the headlights. A quavering voice is one thing, but a look of utter paralysis is something else. Refusing questions and running for cover in the most damaging journalistic chase scene in recent memory — down three flights of stairs and across the historic corridors of the Legislature — finished him off.

Fourth, by his own credo: Brown has always banked on the “court of public opinion” to finish off Premier Kathleen Wynne and her governing Liberals, weighed down by political baggage after 14 years in power.

When Wynne waived her parliamentary privilege and agreed to testify as a crown witness in a Sudbury byelection bribery trial last year, Brown mischievously claimed that the premier herself was on trial. When the Liberals asked him to retract — it was clearly wrong, and in any event the case was thrown out of court — Brown refused, even when Wynne launched a libel suit.

The PC leader kept insisting that the court of public opinion had condemned Wynne, even though she had never been on trial in a court of law. That world view came back to haunt Brown Wednesday night.

Fantasizing about filing a libel suit over the allegations of his own impropriety, he acknowledged that the roles were now reversed:

“I know that the court of public opinion moves fast. I have instructed my attorneys to ensure that these allegations are addressed where they should be: in a court of law.”

Live by the court of public opinion. Die by the court of public opinion.

Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears occassionally. mcohn@thestar.ca, Twitter: @reggcohn

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