Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has beaten back a threat to his leadership, pulling out all the stops to convince Tory faithful he is the person to take them to victory.
Delegates at a London, Ont., party conference made a self-conscious show of unity Saturday afternoon, overwhelmingly rejecting an amendment to the PC constitution that could have set the stage for a leadership review.
As they voted by a show of hands, Mr. Hudak sat in the front row of the packed convention centre hall, his arm around his wife, watching the proceedings intently. When the move was defeated, his supporters jumped to their feet, cheering and applauding.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, he dismissed the revolt as a “minor sideshow.”
“I had tremendous support, and I can feel it in my bones from the standing ovations,” Mr. Hudak said. “Look: this is not exactly a party of wallflowers. It’s what I love about our party; they are not afraid to ask the tough questions. I answered the tough questions. And what you saw at the end of the day was a PC party coming together.”
The attempt to force a leadership review was pushed by a group of London Tories. It followed anger over the party’s poor showing in five by-elections last month, in which Mr. Hudak’s team picked up only one seat. Particularly stinging was the loss in London West, a middle-class, suburban seat, where the New Democrats bested the Tories by a wide margin.
Supporters of the leadership amendment framed it as a simple matter of party democracy.
“I’m putting forward the motion so that we have in place a process where your average member can bring forward their concern and know that it can be dealt with within the constitution, not go running to the press, not go bad-mouthing people in public, but rather have a civilized method to deal with their concern,” Arn Brown, a London party member, said.
He was one of three people, including former MPP Bob Wood, who spoke in favour of the leadership amendment.
But most of delegates seemed afraid of dividing the party ahead of a general election expected in the spring. Many sported “Tim” buttons and handed out stickers urging delegates to vote against the leadership review. And they lined up to call for party unity.
“We need to work together as a team, a unified, strong team,” said May Chow of Toronto’s inner-city Trinity-Spadina riding, an NDP stronghold, to whoops and cheers. “We need to convince the granola-crunching, Birkenstock-wearing champagne socialists that we are the natural governing party of Ontario.”
Mr. Hudak, for his part, employed a two-prong strategy in a major lunch-hour speech aimed at countering the most frequent criticisms of his leadership – that he is too scripted, not personable enough and does not connect with voters.
The Tory Leader argued repeatedly that likeability is not important and that, instead, the province needs a serious person to take it through turbulent economic times. Simultaneously, however, he tried to strike a more likeable tone with his speech.
Halfway through the address, he left the podium and walked out into the audience. Pacing the floor like a preacher, he fielded pointed questions from party rank and file while cracking jokes, gesturing with both hands and sporting a broad smile.
He was asked why he seems stilted and wooden on television, and why his personal approval numbers consistently lag those of Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“A leader doesn’t follow the polls. A leader leads and the polls follow him,” Mr. Hudak replied, to loud applause. “Andrea Horwath and Kathleen Wynne can focus on being liked. But what we need is a leader who will turn this province around.”
He added personal touches to the speech, gently ribbing members of the audience, waving to his five-year-old daughter, Miller, from the podium and relating the story of meeting his wife, Deb Hutton, when she was a staffer to former premier Mike Harris. (“I said, ‘Who’s this hot woman working for Mike?’ It worked out pretty well, I think.”)
And he tried to re-focus the party on pulling together to fight Ms. Wynne’s Liberals.
He repeatedly argued that, if the province does not take drastic measures to cut spending and battle unions, Ontario will follow the city of Detroit and go bankrupt.
“Ontario will have to choose: will we stay on the road to Detroit, or will we go down a different road to a brighter future?” he said.
He also mocked Ms. Wynne’s penchant for conversations and conciliation, declaring that “we don’t need a group therapy session.”
As he finished the address, Mr. Hudak shifted gears, sounding a positive note as he stood on the convention floor, surrounded by delegates.
“We are the party of hope, we are the party of opportunity,” he said speaking faster and faster. “We are going to get all those young people who are back home in to jobs; we are going to give all those entrepreneurs opportunities; we are going to restore hope in this great province of Ontario.”