The newly appointed interim leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives vowed Tuesday to clean up the party, “root out the rot” and ensure a fair leadership contest following the resignation of top officials amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Vic Fedeli, who was appointed to his post last week following former party leader Patrick Brown’s sudden resignation, said he needed to focus on internal issues ahead of a spring election and would not be making a bid to permanently helm the Tories, as initially planned.
“There are things to fix,” he said. “Fixing this, and it needs fixing, will be a massive undertaking. But it is absolutely essential and absolutely doable if we’re to win the next election.”
The party has been in turmoil since last week when Brown resigned after vehemently denying sexual misconduct allegations reported by CTV News. The Tories also had to deal with the party’s president leaving his post on Sunday amid a separate allegation of sexual assault reported by Maclean’s magazine. None of the allegations have been verified by The Canadian Press.
In the coming weeks, the party will be taking a hard look at its internal processes, including the way it manages its members.
Brown boasted in October of growing the party’s base to 127,000 members from about 10,000 following the Tories’ 2014 election loss. The number has since grown to 200,000.
“Frankly, I think I opened the party up to tens of thousands more who simply want a reasonable, thoughtful…modern, inclusive PC party,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview late last year.
Questions have been raised, however, about those figures, which Fedeli said will be scrutinized through an analysis of the party’s membership rolls, including the names, addresses and the computer IP addresses used by members to register.
“There is an overarching issue of these memberships that have caused me to ask for a complete analysis, a technical analysis, right down into the IP addresses where these came from … It’s going to expose things, I’m sure,” he said.
The interim leader also ordered an overhaul of the party’s membership management system, which was hacked in early November.
Fedeli, saying the party had been through a “chaotic time” in recent days, also vowed to tackle internal sniping.
“Our party has infighting already … We can’t have this,” he said. “We need to focus on the one true opponent.”
Party insiders said the infighting can be attributed, in part, to potential leadership candidates and their advisors jockeying for early position and favourable conditions ahead of the upcoming contest, which will be held by the end of March.
The party has been also been dogged by controversial nomination battles in ridings across the province, including allegations of vote-stuffing in races near Hamilton and Ottawa. In the riding of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas police are currently investigating the PC nomination. The party eventually hired auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers to oversee their nominations contests after complaints about the votes began to emerge.
Amid the internal clean-up that will take place, the party is also currently working on establishing rules that will govern its leadership race, which was announced by the party executive on Friday after a caucus recommendation to have Fedeli stay at the helm through the spring election.
“Would I have loved this job, of course,” Fedeli said. “But, but, there is a bigger role for me today. This needs to be fixed and if I’m off spending two months on a campaign it’s not going to get fixed.”
Fedeli’s announcement means there is currently only one candidate officially in the running — Toronto politician Doug Ford, brother of the city’s late former mayor Rob Ford.
Other potential candidates include Caroline Mulroney, the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, former Postmedia executive Rod Phillips and PC energy critic Todd Smith who told a local media outlet in Eastern Ontario Tuesday he is considering a bid for the leadership.
Two Tory legislators considered potential candidates — Monte McNaugton and Lisa MacLeod — said Tuesday they would not seek the top job.
Kevin Gaudet, a long time party member and organizer of the PC policy convention last fall, said he could understand why Fedeli has opted to focus on re-building the party.
“There’s a reason why, in almost every instance that I can think of ? in a leadership race, an interim leader’s not allowed to run,” he said. “In this instance, there are a lot of things to do and he’s busy and it’s a contracted period of time.”
Gaudet said Brown’s sudden resignation, as well as the departure of former party president Rick Dykstra, has created a slew of challenges for Fedeli and the party.
“There’s factions, there’s parties, there’s interests, there’s policy and there’s a ticking clock,” he said. “I’m not surprised by that and I have every confidence that we’ve got smart and capable people with integrity involved in the process to take us forward.”