TORONTO — Ontario's embattled Progressive Conservatives tried to put on a united front Tuesday, saying the party has turned the page following weeks of unprecedented tumult triggered by its leader's abrupt resignation — and his short-lived quest to reclaim his job.
But questions remained about the party's ability to restore confidence among the rank and file while holding a leadership contest that could see the Tories walk away from the "People's Guarantee" — a platform touted by ousted leader Patrick Brown as the path to victory in the spring election.
"The last 10 days have been unprecedented in Ontario's politics," interim leader Vic Fedeli told a news conference. "No one will question that it has been a difficult time for our party, but we are now ready to turn the page."
Fedeli, however, repeatedly dodged questions about his promise to "root out the rot," following allegations of corruption, fixed nomination contests, abuse of funds and inflated membership numbers levelled against Brown, who is also being investigated by Ontario's integrity commissioner.
"Our party is bigger than one person," he said, adding that the Tories have never been in a better position to defeat the Liberals, who have governed the province for over 14 years.
"Quite frankly, this has made us a lot stronger," he said.
But turning the page won't be easy given the media coverage of Brown's resignation in January amid sexual misconduct allegations and the chaos that ensued, said University of Guelph political science professor Tamara Small.
"The party itself and all of the candidates are not going to want to talk about Patrick Brown," she said. "Their messaging will be about moving on and defeating (Premier) Kathleen Wynne....but it will depend on whether or not the media decides they're going to let the PCs set the agenda."
Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said barring any further revelations involving Brown, the party, or major gaffes by the yet-to-be elected leader, history favours the Tories when it comes to replacing the Liberals.
"There is a sense that the Liberals have had more than a fair shot, 15 years," he said. "That should give the Conservatives, all things being equal, an edge coming into this election."
The four remaining leadership hopefuls — former legislator Christine Elliott, lawyer Caroline Mulroney, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford and parental rights advocate Tanya Granic Allen — will face each other in a debate Wednesday in Ottawa.
Members will start voting for the new leader on March 2, with the winner to be announced on March 10.
If elected leader, Mulroney said she would introduce a plan to clean up the party, beef up its sexual harassment policies, modernize its technology and establish rules for "legitimate" expenses.
"I'm going to build a party members can trust again," she said. "A party ready to bring a new generation of leadership to our province."
Elliott said some change is in order for the party, but there was no need for a major internal shakeup.
"We do need to make some changes...but I do believe that foundation is strong," she said. "I don't think things are in the kind of terrible shape that Caroline seems to think they are, I think things are much more healthy and we're ready to go."
Doug Ford and Tanya Granic Allen did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the Liberals seized the opportunity to attack the Tory leadership candidates, who have opposed not only the province's current cap-and-trade system, but also Brown's plan to replace it with a carbon tax.
The Tories will have to cut services to make up for the billions of dollars the program would bring in, said Deb Matthews, former president of the Treasury Board and Liberal campaign co-chair.
"I'm looking to see who's going to come clean," she said. "Who is going to say this is what we're going to cut."
NDP legislator France Gelinas said it's becoming clear that the Progressive Conservative party is not ready to run the province.
"We don't have to choose between bad and worse," she said. "We can choose the NDP."
Gelinas added that she won't be tuning in to watch Thursday's leadership debate.
"I look at the Conservatives a bit like ... a dumpster fire," she said. "You know there are flames coming of that big box but I'm not interested to see what's in there."
— With files from Paola Loriggio.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press