Tim Hudak could have tried to turn Ontario’s June 12 election into a referendum on Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, or on the legacy of Dalton McGuinty. To his credit, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Leader has instead opted to run on his own vision of what the province should look like, and how it should change.
In the process, Mr. Hudak may have just turned the campaign into a referendum on himself.
His proposal to cut 100,000 jobs in the broader public sector would be the hardest right turn Ontario has taken since the Mike Harris era – and perhaps a harder one than Mr. Harris took. Whatever one thinks of the policy, it is breathtakingly bold given how spectacularly it could blow up on him.
Even before he made that pitch on Friday, there was evidence that many voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote out the Liberals are afraid of putting Mr. Hudak in the Premier’s office. In a survey of 1,000 Ontarians conducted by Innovative Research Group earlier this week, 57 per cent agreed it is time for a change in government, while only 20 per cent disagreed. But a question about whether they fear a government under Mr. Hudak brought a similar response, with 55 per cent agreeing and 24 per cent disagreeing.
Those latter numbers are not necessarily fatal to the Tories’ hopes. They believe they are stuck somewhere in the mid-30s in popular support, with limited potential for voters to move either to or from their party. That means they are less concerned about winning over new supporters than making sure the ones they have actually come out and vote in greater-than-usual numbers – and an announcement like Friday’s is supposed to help with that motivation.
The danger for the Tories is that the policy, and others like it that may be announced in coming days, will also help mobilize those inclined to vote against them.
Even when doctors, police and a few other professions that Mr. Hudak has said would be spared are taken out of the equation, not far from a million public employees now have cause to worry about their jobs. And many of those people have spouses or siblings or parents or children who will also be nervous on their behalf. Some of the employees, notably teachers, are also in positions where they can strongly influence the views of members of the communities around them.
In other words, many Ontarians may now feel more compelled to vote against Mr. Hudak than they did a couple of days ago. And on top of that, they may feel motivated to vote strategically.
The other key to the Tories’ hopes, beyond their supporters being the most motivated, is some degree of vote-splitting on the centre-left. In particular, they need the NDP to pull away votes from the Liberals in the battleground Greater Toronto Area.
Even before Friday, there were indications that the Liberals’ leftward shift in their budget – and the fact that the New Democrats would not support it – might rally such voters behind Ms. Wynne’s party. What Mr. Hudak is proposing could help the Liberals seal that deal, by arguing theirs is the only party that can stop the PCs’ agenda.
On Friday, senior Tories said they were not preoccupied with that dynamic. Quite rightly, they pointed out it is too early in the campaign to predict how support for the other parties will break; for all anyone knows, by the end, it could be the NDP ahead of the Liberals and making the strategic-voting argument.
His strategists’ view, consistent with the one Mr. Hudak expressed almost from the day he lost his first election as leader, is that the only way for him to win is by showing he is not afraid to bravely follow his small-c conservative instincts.
No doubt, he has now inspired more than a few fellow travellers who found him lacking last time out. The question now is who else he has inspired, and what he has inspired them to do.