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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is seen at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Dec. 13. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is seen at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Dec. 13. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Tim Hudak’s new persona combines smooth talk with stern measures Add to ...

He recalls growing up in a family of teachers, and expresses admiration for those who perform “minor miracles in the classroom.” He wants to make civil servants excited to come to work each day. He talks about the “enormous potential” of people on social assistance, and government doing more “to help our most vulnerable citizens.”

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Listen selectively to Tim Hudak, during a lengthy interview in his Queen’s Park office, and it might be easy to forget that he is proposing a right-wing revolution that would include battles even his mentor Mike Harris shied away from.

With his second chance to lay claim to the premier’s office likely only months away, the Progressive Conservative Leader is headed into uncharted territory. To date, Ontario’s experiences with hardline conservatism have mostly been of the populist variety – a lot of bark and limited bite, in terms of lasting policy legacy. Mr. Hudak is attempting the opposite.

Having tried in 2011 to get elected on a particularly vacuous brand of populism, which involved gratuitous shots at “foreign workers” and prison inmates in place of substantive differences with government policy, he responded to voters’ rejection by reinventing himself in 2012 as someone willing to speak hard truths in a soothing voice.

That meant releasing a series of white papers that propose nothing less than a full-scale overhaul of how the province does business. For the public sector, there would be job cuts, “pay for performance,” and pension plans more in line with the private sector. Public assets such as the LCBO would be privatized, or at least face competition. And organized labour would be weakened through the sort of “right-to-work” legislation increasingly popular south of the border.

Mr. Hudak sells all this as a collective effort, mostly steering clear of attempts to blame Ontario’s economic struggles on certain segments of its population. In the interview, only “union leaders” were cast in a negative light; members were cast as victims he seeks to liberate.

“I think that the teachers’ union approach has really brought down what I see as a profession, not an assembly line from the 1950s,” he said. “If there’s some nurse getting people back on their feet before you know it, going over and above the job, why don’t we reward that? Why is everything based on seniority? I just feel this mentality from 60 years ago has no place in public services like that.”

When it came to the private sector, even the union leaders weren’t really singled out for criticism; Mr. Hudak credited them for “being a lot more realistic about the state of the world,” and making concessions accordingly. Still, he argued that their grip should be loosened to compete with states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

“The tools that produced labour laws beginning back in 1946, 1947 are just no longer relevant to the state of the world in the 21st century,” he said. “Nor do I think it fits with the way people think of themselves. People are a lot more independent; they’re a lot more sophisticated; the nature of the workplace has changed.”

All this talk of making Ontario a more favourable place to do business is starting to be accompanied by a ramped-up effort to show he doesn’t fit the cold-blooded conservative stereotype. In late 2012, the white papers on issues such as labour policy gave way to one on children’s services, and he promises there will be more focus on the social side in early 2013.

“We’ve built how we’re going to get to a more focused government,” he said. “Now we’re going to be talking about what you need to get out of that at the end of the day.”

That will include not just inevitable calls for more investment in front-line health care, but also a discussion of welfare policies. “If you’re producing more wealth, the government then can extend its ability to help our most vulnerable populations,” Mr. Hudak said, hinting that he would draw from the recent social-assistance review co-chaired by former NDP minister Frances Lankin to reduce barriers to re-entering the work force.

A better fit into the right-wing caricature his opponents will attempt to fit around him is Mr. Hudak’s dogged insistence upon reducing taxes at a time when the province is $14-billion in deficit. Not having decided yet whether he would target business, income or sales taxes, he says cuts “are going to be an essential part of getting out of this malaise” without quite explaining why that is.

Even if that doesn’t trip him up too much, Mr. Hudak may face an even bigger challenge in winning voters’ confidence. Having come off last campaign as someone too willing to say whatever he thought the electorate wanted to hear, he will need to make a convincing case that this thoughtful conservative is the real him, not just the latest face he’s putting forward.

While repeating a favourite line about having spent too much time last campaign “auditioning to be opposition leader,” Mr. Hudak insisted in the interview that “there were elements” of his current positions in his platform, and “we just chose not to highlight them.”

That’s a stretch, but he’s making up for lost time. Only a couple of years ago, Mr. Hudak was incapable of explaining how the province would look different after he’d spent a term in the premier’s office. Now, while insisting he shares the same goals as the vast majority of Ontarians, he can’t seem to stop putting forward ideas for how he would change the way we pursue them.

“I need a mandate,” he says, “and I’d like to fight for what I believe in.”

 

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