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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak delivers remarks to journalists after Ontario Auditor General Jim McCarter tabled his Annual Report at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday December 5. 2011. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak delivers remarks to journalists after Ontario Auditor General Jim McCarter tabled his Annual Report at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday December 5. 2011. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ADAM RADWANSKI

Ontario PCs ill-equipped for potential spring vote Add to ...

As Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals and Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats negotiate to avoid a spring election, Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives have good reason to cheer them on.

A new Nanos Research poll shows Mr. Hudak would be the worst-positioned of Ontario’s three major party leaders to contest another campaign just months after the last one.

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The proof is not in the “horse race” numbers, which show the Tories at 32-per-cent support, three points behind the governing Liberals and six ahead of the New Democrats. Rather, it’s in Mr. Hudak’s leadership numbers, which are more relevant for opposition parties as they consider their prospects.

On all three measurements taken by pollster Nik Nanos – trustworthiness, competence and vision – Mr. Hudak’s rating has dipped substantially. On Mr. Nanos’s leadership index, which adds together each leader’s first-choice percentages in the three categories, he has gone from a score of 71.3 last spring (and 56.3 during last fall’s election campaign) to 52.6 now.

That leaves him behind not only Mr. McGuinty, whose rating has also dipped somewhat, but also the surging Ms. Horwath.

The numbers appear to be an indictment of Mr. Hudak’s approach to the province’s first minority legislature since the 1980s. Whereas Ms. Horwath has taken pains to convey that she prefers to influence policy rather than force another election, helping her build an image as a positive-minded pragmatist, Mr. Hudak signalled even before this spring’s budget was tabled that he planned to oppose it outright. That’s both marginalized him and reinforced impressions that he’s a caricature of an opposition politician.

Public opinion can change rapidly once an election is called. But the fact is that Mr. Hudak’s current disadvantages go well beyond perceptions.

Ostensibly the only one of the three parties that wants a spring election, the Tories are least prepared organizationally. Their disappointing showing last fall led to a behind-the-scenes shakeup that’s not yet complete; at present, Mr. Hudak hasn’t even named a campaign manager. Nor has he had time to craft a coherent policy agenda to replace a platform he knows was too insubstantial. And fundraising is a bigger challenge for his party than for the Liberals, and perhaps even the New Democrats.

There may yet prove to be some method to Mr. Hudak’s madness. Since the Liberals were reduced to a minority, he’s been operating on the assumption that the New Democrats would prop them up for a while. To a point, he doesn’t mind if the NDP gains support, since it can lead to helpful vote splits. And his strategists are hoping that, even if Mr. Hudak takes a short-term hit, Mr. McGuinty’s brand will suffer long-term damage from trying to keep the NDP happy.

Although they’ve been overshadowed by his budget posturing, there have also been some hopeful signs in Mr. Hudak’s day-to-day performance.

Having acknowledged he didn’t put his best face forward last fall, he’s visibly trying to present himself differently. Tellingly, he’s left it to other members of his caucus to take the lead on the Ornge air ambulance scandal to avoid playing to perceived type by turning up on the evening news angrily calling for ministerial resignations. In his communications, he’s tried to recast himself as a thoughtful small-c conservative – softer in tone, with an almost wonkish interest in economic details.

If he gets more time, those efforts could lead Ontarians to give Mr. Hudak a serious second look.

But for now, he has to hope that the other parties don’t call his bluff. Another disappointing campaign would almost certainly spell the end of his leadership. And it’s doubtful he’ll ever be weaker than he is this spring.

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