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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (PETER POWER AND DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (PETER POWER AND DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Two leaders, second thoughts: Why Wynne and Hudak have reasons to regret Add to ...

Ontario Liberals and Progressive Conservatives alike chafe at the comparison.

But much as they prefer not to see it this way, two very different policies have placed their two very different party leaders in oddly similar situations.

With their positions in favour of new taxes or tolls for public transportation and “right-to-work” labour legislation, respectively, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Official Opposition Leader Tim Hudak each thought they were meeting political imperatives in the best way possible – by being true to their beliefs about how to help their province’s troubled economy.

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Now, amid pushback from within their own parties heading into a likely election this spring, the two leaders seem to be having second thoughts. But the cat is too far out of the bag.

Ms. Wynne’s situation has received less attention of late, perhaps because it’s not new. For a brief time after winning the Liberal leadership, she identified new “revenue tools” to address traffic gridlock as her top priority. The issue was close to her heart because of a previous stint as transportation minister; it was also an obvious way to differentiate herself from Dalton McGuinty.

Since last spring, Ms. Wynne’s enthusiasm has visibly waned. From conversations with senior Liberals, it seems their party’s research has persuaded them the issue is potentially toxic outside the Greater Toronto Area, and shaky even within it. If they’re going to campaign on asking Ontarians to pay more, they appear to think it would be easier to sell a new provincial pension plan to supplement the federal one.

For Ms. Wynne to announce she’s decided not to create new revenues for transportation or simply leave it out of her budget and campaign platform, however, really isn’t much of an option. Doing so would make her look weak on the very issue on which she sought to establish her boldness, while allowing her opponents to pick the most unpopular potential taxes or tolls and claim she was simply waiting until after the election to impose it.

If transportation investment was supposed to set Ms. Wynne apart from Mr. McGuinty, right-to-work was meant to help Mr. Hudak get past the first impression he himself made on voters, when he came off as too cynical and opportunistic. His proposal to do away with the Rand Formula, tantamount to declaring war on unions because it would threaten their existence, has been held up as evidence he’s actually a principled conservative.

Recently, he’s been sending mixed signals. After talking up right-to-work since 2012, he left it out of the jobs agenda he put forward this month. Senior Tories acknowledged that was reflective of an ongoing debate within their party, with some MPPs nervous about being accused of pushing toward lower wages.

After that debate blew out into the open, and compelled Mr. Hudak to fire a candidate who publicly attacked right-to-work’s proponents, he insisted publicly he has “absolutely not” changed his mind about “modernizing labour laws” – still leaving it vague how far he will go.

Ultimately, Mr. Hudak may have little choice but to go very far indeed. Problematic though right-to-work could be for him, not least because it could galvanize unions and left-of-centre voters to rally behind one of the other parties rather than splitting between them, disavowing it would at this point risk the worst of both worlds. Swing voters could easily be persuaded Mr. Hudak had a hidden agenda; meanwhile, his base could be turned off by his squishyness.

Amid all this, the third of Ontario’s major-party leaders has reason to be smiling. Only the NDP’s Andrea Horwath hasn’t rushed out onto any limbs she can’t easily climb off of. In fact, Ms. Horwath has scarcely taken any substantive policy positions at all – an approach that polls suggest is working for her.

For Ms. Wynne and Mr. Hudak, the best hope might be that once a campaign begins in earnest, voters will respect them for standing up for what they believe in. That is, if they themselves retain the courage of their convictions.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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