Heading into a leadership review, Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak looks set to win.
The Ontario PC party has been far more likely than the Ontario Liberals (or the federal PC party of old) to keep its leaders on for multiple elections. Joe Wearing’s seminal paper “Ontario Political Parties: Fish or Foul” found this trend was very significant.
In addition, Mr. Hudak has been relentless in his opposition to the Liberal government in Ontario. Tough rhetoric is red meat for a party base in opposition, and Mr. Hudak has been feeding them Angus beef.
Given his party culture, his success in holding the Liberals to a minority, and the absence of an obvious successor, a strong result is to be expected.
However, the path forward after the review is uncertain.
Adam Radwanski wrote this morning about the protest movement gaining steam to elect a reform candidate president of the Ontario PCs.
That organizational challenge would run up against Mr. Hudak’s biggest problem: he’s becoming unpopular.
The most recent survey of leadership approval was a Forum survey on January 19.
Mr. Hudak’s personal approval rating is at 26 per cent – well below the PC party at 41 per cent.
This is the nadir of a long downward trend for Mr. Hudak.
Mr. Hudak is showing particular challenges appealing to women, urban and suburban voters, and New Canadians.
Some of this can be attributed to the exigencies of winning the review, and the rhetorical and policy choices made as a result.
The negativity of the election campaign was corrosive to his brand, and the negativity since the election made that worse.
But switching to a constructive, thoughtful alternative government-style of leadership will be a difficult transition.
If the party elects a protest candidate president, and if his caucus continues to demand a “no deals” approach in the Legislature, Mr. Hudak’s opportunities to rebrand himself will be constrained.
In addition, this hung Parliament means that an election can come at anytime. The opportunities for long-term rebuilding, policy development and media training will be limited.
Here are five ideas for putting his best foot forward after the review:
1. Promote new members
For the last eight years, the PC benches were filled with a surplus of white, male, rural and small town Mike Harris backbenchers. Many of these MPPs are talented, but they were not diverse in outlook, experience or demographics. The recent election injected new blood into the caucus and Mr. Hudak will need to make an effort to promote some of his rookies into key roles. At the same time, he needs to ensure the most talented experienced hands are kept happy.
2. Make a deal
Jack Layton was able to use minority Parliament to reposition the federal NDP from irrelevant to an alternative government. Mr. Hudak should do the same, not just to promote his own ideas but to change the tone his party brings to the Legislature. All of the “Dalton McGuinty is bad” votes in Ontario were harvested in the 2011 election. The remaining voters want to see a positive plan for change promoted by a responsible organization they can trust. Being more selective in what legislation to oppose and what to support and what to amend will develop the nuance those voters want to see.
3. Spend time with your family
Tim Hudak obviously delights in the company of his wife and daughter. The more they are around, the more comfortable and relaxed he appears. The last PC election campaign seemed to be highlighting his family, but the real benefit was the softening of Mr. Hudak himself. It is impossible to seem hard-edged and mean while holding a pre-schooler. Spending time with his family should improve Mr. Hudak’s tone naturally.
4. Pick an issue
To date, the issues Mr. Hudak chose to champion have been the government’s agenda. The HST, LHINs, The Green Energy Act. To build up his own positive brand, Mr. Hudak should select an issue that is important to him personally and spend time on that issue in depth. Mr. McGuinty focused on early childhood development. Jean Chretien spent time on aboriginal youth. John Tory championed youth at risk. Rather than quixotic, these crusades make the leader about more than the party. It makes them a man.
5. Hope sells
Elections can be run on one of two themes: hope and fear. Fear tends to be the more common emotion: the fear of the unknown or the fear of a hidden agenda or the fear of chaos. But hope is the more powerful tool. The great realigning triumphs – “Morning in America” in Reagan’s 1984 re-election, “Things Can Only Get Better” with Tony Blair in 1996, “Yes We Can” in Obama’s election – were grounded in hope. If Mr. Hudak is to expand his appeal beyond the traditional PC base, he will need to relentlessly project hope for a better tomorrow.