Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has come to the defence of Tim Hudak, dismissing critics of the besieged Ontario Progressive Conservative leader as "a few nervous nellies."
While some disgruntled Tories have called for Mr. Hudak to be subjected to a leadership review after a disappointing showing in last week's by-elections, Mr. Baird said Thursday the provincial opposition party should "be focusing on tackling Ontario's problems, not a few naysayers tackling each other."
"Winning involves unity," Mr. Baird, a former Ontario PC minister, told The Globe and Mail in a phone interview from Rio de Janeiro. "We've got to stay focused on who the real enemy is, and that's bloated government, big deficits and lagging employment numbers in Ontario. Tim is the one to tackle those, and now is not the time to be inward-looking."
Calling the leadership of Ontario's opposition "the toughest political job in Canada," Mr. Baird said Mr. Hudak already passed a leadership review following the 2011 election, which his party lost after leading in the polls. And he praised Mr. Hudak's response to his failure to win power in that campaign, crediting him for subsequently coming out with "a lot of substance, a lot of policy, and a clear conservative direction for the province."
"Tim took responsibility for the last election campaign," Mr. Baird said. "You never see a leader do that, ever. We've grown from that."
Mr. Baird and Mr. Hudak are long-time friends, having come of political age together as young MPPs in the Mike Harris government. "They say you don't know someone until you've walked a thousand miles in their shoes," the federal minister said. "Well, I've walked a thousand miles with this guy – at caucus meetings, cabinet meetings, when we were fighting the good fight to bring change. He's an experienced leader who has the capacity to deliver."
Since news emerged that a group of Tories from London, Ont., have submitted a motion to the party aimed at forcing a leadership review during its policy conference in September, two PC MPPs – Frank Klees and Randy Hillier – have called for Mr. Hudak to submit to such a vote.
Mr. Hudak is also facing pressure from prominent political operative Nick Kouvalis, who many of the PC leader's supporters believe has been helping spearhead the attempts to force a review. Mr. Kouvalis vigorously denies that he is attempting to oust Mr. Hudak, but was highly critical of his leadership in a column earlier this week for Queen's Park Briefing, a provincial newsletter published by the Toronto Star
"They say the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour," Mr. Kouvalis wrote. "A year and a half ago Hudak faced down his angry membership. He promised he had learned and that he would change. As the losses continue to accumulate it's unclear whether Hudak can convince the members of that again in September."
Mr. Baird declined to comment on the motivations of Mr. Hudak's critics, but likened the attacks to those faced by Mr. Harris, Dalton McGuinty and other former provincial opposition leaders before they became premier.
He went out of his way to say that he was not standing up for Mr. Hudak at anyone's request. "I really believe strongly in this," he said. "I wasn't asked to do this. I'm doing it of my own volition."