Tim Hudak turned to leading lights on the American right – from Tea Party-linked think tanks to anti-tax crusaders – in his effort to craft an unabashedly small-government platform.
In the week after Easter, 2012, when the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader was revamping his agenda after an unexpected election loss to the Liberals the year before, he visited Washington and met with a half-dozen top conservative thinkers.
The Liberals, who on Sunday released an itinerary of the trip, dubbed it a “secret” series of meetings with “right-wing radicals.”
In an earlier interview with The Globe however, Mr. Hudak spoke openly about the visit, describing it as part of a broader process of political soul-searching. It helps explain Mr. Hudak’s choice of a boldly conservative strategy in the campaign, and why it may pay off.
“I used that time to say ‘Ok, what actually do we need to do to turn Ontario around, to make it the best place for job creation and investment? And how can we transform the public service?’ ” he said.
“Where does my mind and my heart come together on what we need to do?” said Mr. Hudak. “I had to figure out what should be in my plan.”
The itinerary, previously obtained separately by The Globe, lists meetings with Grover Norquist, famous for getting most Republican legislators to sign a promise not to hike taxes; Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy at the libertarian Cato Institute; and labour expert James Sherk at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank led by a former Tea Party senator. Mr. Hudak also dined at the home of David Frum, the Canadian author and former George W. Bush speechwriter, the schedule says, and spent a day at public relations firm Greener and Hook.
Mr. Hudak is also listed as having met a policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. Earlier this year, the Tories hired AEI economist Benjamin Zycher to estimate the number of jobs some of their current platform planks would create. But Mr. Hudak had to distance himself from the economist’s political views after it turned out Mr. Zycher had once accused Princeton of only granting Michelle Obama a degree because of her skin colour, and has questioned the existence of global warming.
Mr. Hudak said the Washington sit-downs were organized by Mr. Frum, whom he counts as an adviser. Around that time, he also made trips to New York City, Alberta and British Columbia to meet with financial and business leaders. And he read extensively, including the writings of former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who balanced the books by shrinking the size of the state government.
The culmination of this process is his government-cutting campaign in the June 12 election. He has pledged to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs, including teachers; axe tax credits for senior citizens and cancel light-rail lines. He is also promising to dramatically cut both corporate and personal income taxes.
Mr. Edwards sees in Mr. Hudak some parallels with the Tea Party, which swept libertarian candidates into office across the U.S. four years ago. While the movement is on the wane now, its small-government policies have been adopted by mainstream Republicans.
“There was a wave of very conservative Republican governors, who have been cutting income tax rates and the like,” he said in an interview. “That is kind of a new development, which you could say is a a forerunner for Hudak if he were to be successful.”
Historically, he also likens Mr. Hudak to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who implemented laissez-faire economics in a traditionally big-government jurisdiction.
Mr. Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, contends small-government movements succeed in reaction to fiscal irresponsibility, and taking a strong stand pays off.
“Ontario’s been busy bankrupting itself. To say ‘we’re changing things seriously’ … the best thing to do is to be bold about that,” he said. “When people get sufficiently scared and irritated by stupid policies, they’re willing to move in a different direction.”
Mr. Edwards described Mr. Hudak as “intelligent, knowledgeable and a good listener,” eager to learn about U.S. fiscal policy. Mr. Norquist could not remember meeting the PC Leader, but said he may have presented at ATR’s “Wednesday meeting,” one of Washington’s top conservative organizing sessions.
There are numbers that suggest Ontarians – enough of them to elect a government at least – are ready for Mr. Hudak’s tough pitch.
John Wright at pollster Ipsos Global points to two metrics. For one, the firm’s research shows more than 70 per cent of voters want change – the highest level in 25 years. Second, Tory supporters are the most likely to show up at the polls.
“The Conservative turnout is very strong but the Liberal and the NDP are anemic,” he said. “Liberals and New Democrats are sitting on their hands.”
Mr. Hudak is also looking to the triumphant 1995 campaign of his mentor, Mike Harris. Unlike Mr. Hudak, of course, Mr. Harris won at a time when the bitter fiscal medicine he proposed was all the rage. Then prime minister Jean Chrétien and Alberta premier Ralph Klein, for instance, were also cutting spending to get their fiscal houses in order. But veterans of that era see similarities.
“We broke with the conventional wisdom then and Tim is doing that now,” said Paul Rhodes, Mr. Harris’s former communications director. “There was a veritable tsunami of opposition to what we were suggesting. There must have been a million column inches written about why this was just wrongheaded and wouldn’t work.”
Even so, there is no denying the gamble that is Mr. Hudak’s strategy. Politicians, after all, usually wait until after elections to deliver fiscal bad news.
“It’s quite remarkable: We’re seeing a tough budget during a campaign,” said University of Moncton economist Donald Savoie. “If Hudak is successful, there’s a message for all politicians, that Canadians may be far readier for this than we assume.”