Christine Elliott kicked off her bid for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership by implicitly pledging a break from the top-down style of Tim Hudak and a new focus on social policy.
"Progressive Conservatives know that good economic policy enables good social policy," she said as she launched her bid on the University of Toronto campus Wednesday, across the street from the legislature. "Fiscal responsibility and social compassion can and, in fact, must go hand in hand. These are the values that I've always carried with me."
Ms. Elliott is the first declared candidate in the race to succeed Mr. Hudak. With a large network of supporters in the party, including several caucus colleagues, she is seen as the early front-runner.
Mr. Hudak – who embraced a right-wing platform that included cutting 100,000 jobs from the public sector – led the party to defeat on June 12, losing nine seats and taking the party's lowest popular vote share in a generation.
"Voters sent us a very clear message that we failed to connect with the issues that matter to them. The next four years, we all know, cannot be about business as usual. It cannot be about small incremental change," Ms. Elliott said. "We need to go back and rebuild our party from the ground up."
She also acknowledged that many in the party felt cut out of Mr. Hudak's decision-making, and promised this would change under her watch.
"It's really important to make sure that you listen to all of the voices at the table. I have a great respect for my caucus colleagues and the candidates who ran with us," she said. "We need to talk to people to understand how we could have projected our message in a way that people would have understood it."
The MPP for Whitby-Oshawa since 2006, Ms. Elliott previously made an unsuccessful run for the leadership in 2009.
She has most recently served as deputy leader and health critic, projecting an image of quiet competence as she developed the party's social policy. She is well-respected by MPPs on all sides of the legislature.
Ms. Elliott is also known for her work on developmental disabilities, setting up legislative committees and helping found the Abilities Centre in Whitby.
The widow of federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, Ms. Elliott is the mother of three grown sons.
She said Mr. Flaherty would have wanted her to run.
"It's something that Jim always wanted me to do. He always wanted me to move forward in whatever capacity presented itself," she said. "He would have been happy with my decision."
Asked if her even-keeled, collegial style might be "too nice" for the scrappy role of opposition leader, Ms. Elliott said she should not be underestimated.
"I'm a lot tougher than people think. I think the experiences that I've had in the last few months demonstrate that," she said. "It's really a matter of style over substance: I do have a different style than some other people. But that doesn't mean I'm not tough."
The race for Tory leader could turn out to be crowded. MPPs Lisa MacLeod and Vic Fedeli are said to also be mulling bids, while several federal MPs and cabinet ministers – including Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement, John Baird, Rick Dykstra and Patrick Brown – have not ruled it out.
The party executive meets next week to set a date for the contest.