Ontario PC leadership candidates square off for last time

 Though he abandoned his bid to snatch back the reins of Ontario's Opposition, Patrick Brown's future with the Progressive Conservatives took centre stage Wednesday as those vying to replace him faced off in the last debate of the party's leadership race.

As the Tories strive to close the door on the upheaval caused by Brown's abrupt January resignation and short-lived resurgence, the four candidates competing to succeed him were asked whether they would allow the party's controversial former leader to run under their banner in the province's spring election.

Former Tory legislator Christine Elliott and Toronto lawyer and businesswoman Caroline Mulroney said they would let Brown back into the fold if he cleared his name of the sexual misconduct and financial impropriety allegations against him before the campaign.

Though Brown has denied the allegations and declared that his name has already been cleared, both Elliott and Mulroney said it would be up to others to make that call.

"Saying you've cleared your name and clearing your name are two different things," Mulroney said.

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford said only that Brown "has to take care of a few things," and said he was focusing his attention on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne instead.

Social conservative advocate Tanya Granic Allen has so far been the only one to say unequivocally that Brown would not be welcome in the party under her leadership, though she stressed her opposition stems from his management practices rather than the sexual misconduct allegations.

Brown -- who launched a bid to reclaim his old job a day after the first leadership debate earlier this month -- was expected to join the four candidates for the Ottawa event being hosted by Althia Raj of HuffPost Canada.

But he backed out of the race Monday, saying his candidacy had caused hardship for his friends and family, and had drawn focus away from the party's goal of defeating the governing Liberals in the spring election.

His departure in late January set off what the party's interim leader, Vic Fedeli, has called a period of "unprecedented" tumult.

With Brown out of the leadership race, Fedeli -- who weeks earlier vowed to clear the "rot" from the party -- said the Tories are ready to close the door on what has been a difficult chapter in their history.

He said the party has emerged from its ordeal stronger and with more momentum than before, citing a boost in membership numbers and fundraising.

Some experts, however, have said it may not be that easy for the Tories to turn the page, and at least two of the leadership candidates -- Mulroney and Elliott -- have said some changes to the party's structure and processes would be warranted.

Mulroney had said Tuesday that if she is elected leader, she will introduce a plan that would beef up the party's sexual harassment policies, modernize its technology and software, and establish rules for "legitimate" party expenses.

Elliott said she believes some changes are needed, but the party's "foundation is strong."

Voting for the new leader is set to begin online on Friday, although Tory members have until 11:59 p.m. on March 5 to sign up to cast their ballots. The party's leadership election committee said Brown's name has been removed from the ballot.

The winner will be announced on March 10.