Nearly two years ago, in the wake of his disappointing first campaign at the helm of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, Tim Hudak told his party that he knew his performance had not been good enough. He had failed to be true to his own values and beliefs, he had cast an unappealing figure, and he would now set about making himself better.
Headed into this weekend’s party convention in London – likely the Tories’ final gathering before Mr. Hudak gets his second, make-or-break chance at the premier’s office – he declared this work to be complete and himself to be battle-ready.
In an interview in his Queen’s Park office, Mr. Hudak took credit for laying out the “bold, conservative vision” he failed to produce last time. Considering that a lengthy series of PC policy papers has proposed everything from a war with organized labour to major government cutbacks to tax cuts to private liquor sales, that’s difficult to deny.
Then he made a more contentious claim.
“There used to be the criticisms that I was too robotic, too scripted, that kind of stuff,” he said. “I never hear that anymore, unless somebody’s talking about the past. Because I’m confident in what I believe in. … So when I’m talking, I’m speaking through the heart.”
This claim to letting himself be himself was an interesting one for Mr. Hudak to make, because it’s his difficulty in doing so that remains the most cogent criticism put forward by his critics.
To be sure, Mr. Hudak appears to be much more in his comfort zone with his current policy agenda than he was with his attempt in the previous campaign to essentially ape the governing Liberals’ agenda while trying to carve out a few populist wedge issues. But talk to those who cover him, or work for him, or perhaps even work against him, and you will hear the same question that was asked before the last campaign as well: Why can’t he be the same publicly as he is in private?
In a social setting, Mr. Hudak is conversational and inquisitive and about as down-to-earth as politicians get. Then the cameras or tape recorders come on, and he goes into a sort of shell in which every third sentence appears to be a talking point.
Perched on his office couch during this week’s interview, Mr. Hudak struck a pose that suggested he was at ease. And he did seem to break slightly from script occasionally, admitting at one point that he’s frustrated with his difficulty in getting Ontarians to take notice of his policies. But for the most part, it was obvious that his responses had been rehearsed.
That was especially the case on any questions about the ongoing attempts by dissidents within his party to make his life miserable, including with an (almost certainly unsuccessful) attempt at this weekend’s convention to precipitate a leadership review. Mr. Hudak trotted out some well-worn lines about Tories just being impatient to replace the big-spending Liberals, and predicted the motion being brought forward by dissidents will be “a footnote in history” – the exact same language he used in a press conference and other interviews. Similarly, on the subject of his recent demotion of dissident MPP Randy Hillier, he repeated verbatim a hockey analogy he had already used elsewhere.
Mr. Hudak is hardly the first politician to fall back on talking points. But ask him a question, and it is often almost possible to see him cycling through a few prepared answers in his head before responding.
More unusually, since the last campaign – when he freely discussed the health struggles of his young daughter – he has become almost uniquely reluctant among people in his line of work to personalize his comments when speaking publicly. There is little talk about his life experience and how it has informed his perspective, nor even any anecdotes.
This unwillingness to open up is known to be a source of frustration among his advisers, not to mention his detractors within his party. But at a certain point, it is perhaps time to accept that, as a politician, this is who he is.
Considering that by his own account what we’re seeing now is his version of being open and unscripted, Mr. Hudak is extremely unlikely to ever really let down his guard. Perhaps, up against other party leaders to whom it might be easier for Ontarians to relate, that will prove his undoing. Or perhaps, given Ontario’s major financial and economic and quality-of-life challenges, that will be the least of voters’ concerns. Maybe it will even be an asset – his rigid discipline proving he’s just the man to focus, laser-like, on the tasks ahead.
Regardless, it would probably be best for Mr. Hudak not to make his new lack of scriptedness a part of his script. The issues he is championing may very well be close to his heart, but that’s not the same as letting us see into his soul.