Tim Hudak is the invisible man of Queen's Park.
Since two provincial by-elections were called on Jan. 15, the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader hasn't held a single press conference anywhere near the legislature. And his public appearances elsewhere seem to have been calculated to dodge major media coverage: they are typically only advertised to local outlets.
By contrast, Premier Kathleen Wynne is seeking out more screen time than a reality television star. She has rolled out a series of policy announcements, including a hike to the province's minimum wage, and held frequent media availabilities, once squeezing in two in one day in different cities.
At first blush, the reason for Mr. Hudak's low profile seems obvious. His party has faced a string of bad news lately: an internal dispute over controversial right-to-work policies; a long-time MPP declining to seek re-election; his Thornhill candidate telling a local newspaper that there are few adults in the riding earning minimum wage. If he were to face the press gallery, Mr. Hudak certainly knows, he would have to spend most of his time answering awkward questions about these things instead of getting his message out.
His spokeswoman says Mr. Hudak is simply eager to take his job creation ideas "on the road," and points out that, by-election or no, the Tory leader only tells media in the city or town where he is appearing about his news conferences.
But the contrasting approaches to media that Mr. Hudak and Ms. Wynne are employing in the by-elections go deeper than this, and offer insights into the broader strategies they will use in a general election that could come as early as this spring.
Ms. Wynne's methods are old-school. Ever since she succeeded Dalton McGuinty a year ago, her office's strategy has been to make absolutely certain everyone in the province knows she is Premier. This has meant putting her front and centre at most major government announcements – even the less-than-pleasant ones. Last spring, for instance, when she read then-Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation chair Paul Godfrey the riot act for musing about giving Toronto a special revenue deal for hosting a casino, she announced what she was doing publicly.
The idea, as one Liberal insider confides, is to show that she's in charge.
In the by-elections, this has meant doing everything possible to generate publicity. Her trips to the ridings were well-advertised – press gallery members got no fewer than three separate news releases reminding them about her Niagara Falls excursion – and included full days with multiple campaign stops. She also engaged in unscripted "mainstreeting." It's a risky practice, given the possibility of getting berated by an angry voter in front of reporters, but provides strong visuals and ups her chance of getting on television.
It is classic, big-tent political thinking: get your candidate in the news as much as possible, hope that voters like what they see and will mark their "x" next to her name at election time.
Mr. Hudak's strategy, meanwhile, is more targeted. While he has mostly avoided major media, he has made appearances in both ridings and been covered by local news outlets. Their stories tend to focus narrowly on the by-elections and are less concerned with other matters, such as Mr. Hudak's leadership or his party's relationship with Toronto councillor Doug Ford. He seems to have calculated, in short, that local media geared toward local concerns is a better venue for his message than allowing the press gallery to shape the narrative of his campaign.
This approach jibes with the Tories' bigger strategy, which hinges on identifying key groups of voters and motivating them to go to the polls. It helps explain the rightward turn in Mr. Hudak's office over the last two years, including a stack of meaty policies designed to shrink the size of government. Rather than trying to please everybody, the thinking goes, concentrate on making sure enough people who like your message feel they have something substantial to vote for.
As one PC source puts it: the Liberals focus on a high-level campaign, while the Tories fight a ground war.
Each strategy has trade-offs, of course. Maximum media exposure for Ms. Wynne carries with it the risk her message will be derailed by off-topic questions (as when an announcement about children's health last week was upstaged by reporters asking the Premier to comment on the travails of Justin Bieber.) Avoiding the press gallery in favour of local media, meanwhile, means Mr. Hudak is giving up opportunities to reach Niagara and Thornhill constituents who get their news from major outlets.
In the corridors of Queen's Park, Liberals and New Democrats like to privately comment on Mr. Hudak's elusiveness. But if he is flanked by two new MPPs the next time he scrums with reporters at the legislature, the invisible man will have the last laugh.
Adrian Morrow is The Globe's Ontario legislative reporter.