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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario Dispatch

Hudak is no Harper, but will he steal a page from his book? Add to ...

For those of us who normally cover Ontario politics, this spring's federal election campaign points toward a daunting prospect.

With a provincial election coming this fall, will Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak adopt the same command-and-control mode of campaigning as Stephen Harper? And, in the event that he wins, will his style of governing be as inaccessible as the one favoured by his federal counterpart?

This is probably not among the top concerns of most Ontarians, nor should it be. But it should perhaps be a concern, given the extent to which Mr. Harper's rigid control - from the limited opportunity to ask him questions to the tightened flow of information out of federal ministries - makes it difficult to hold him, his party and his government to account.

For those inclined to fear a clampdown, which includes a good number of people around Queen's Park, there's plenty of cause for concern. Many of the senior people around Mr. Hudak, including his chief of staff and the people running his election team, honed their skills in Mr. Harper's Ottawa.

The most important impact of that experience will be on aspects of the provincial campaign that will fly under the public's radar, notably some very sophisticated voter-identification methods. But it is also already being felt, to some extent, in the party's communications.

While Mr. Hudak makes himself very available to journalists, as any opposition leader needs to do, his messaging is disciplined to the point of rigidity. The Tories show some fondness for the slick, tightly scripted events that are the stuff of their federal counterparts. And even in opposition, their staff are already more circumspect about engaging with the media than those who work for the province's Liberal government.

Clearly, Mr. Hudak won't be nearly as loquacious on the hustings as his predecessor, John Tory - which, given how the last provincial campaign played out, is probably a good thing for his party. Nor would his government be quite as easy for reporters to deal with as Dalton McGuinty's, which often has ministers return phone calls within the hour.

But for all that, a couple of distinctions offer a bit of perspective, and some hope for the optimists among the press pack.

First, Queen's Park is not Ottawa. It's an island within Toronto, rather than a whole company town, and everything - from the press gallery to the size of minister's offices - is on a smaller scale. That makes outright avoidance tougher, and at the same time there's a greater degree of low-key collegiality than in the nation's capital.

Second, and more important, Mr. Hudak is not Mr. Harper.

The Prime Minister, by most accounts, is a remote individual with a strong suspicion of institutions. You're unlikely to warm to him if you're not in his inner circle, and even then it's not entirely clear how close you get.

Mr. Hudak, by contrast, is an inherently likeable guy. Even many political opponents will concede that, when the cameras are off, they rather enjoy being around him. He has little sign of a temper or a mean streak, is naturally inquisitive, and has some willingness to put his trust in others.

The personality of a modern political party is largely an extension of the personality of its leader. So while the provincial Tories are likely to borrow some communication methods, they probably won't take on a full-scale resemblance to the federal party.

Still, this is a story we're likely to hear more about next fall. As Mr. Harper had demonstrated thus far during the federal campaign, it's possible to cause quite a ruckus by trying to exert what's seen as too much control. And Mr. Hudak will probably aim for a little more control than most people around the provincial capital are used to.

 

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