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Hudak hopes policy plan gives him second chance at first impression

Tim Hudak is set to kick his rebranding effort into high gear.

Starting this week with a treatise on energy policy, the Progressive Conservative Leader will roll out a handful of "white papers" laying out proposals to address some of the Ontario government's biggest challenges and alleged shortcomings.

The Tories will frame the series, to be titled "Paths to Prosperity," as filling a void in economic leadership. But it will largely be about trying to get away from the glib, hyper-partisan image that helped derail Mr. Hudak's first campaign as leader, by recasting him as a serious-minded small-c conservative.

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A senior party official stressed that Mr. Hudak will strive for a "non-political" tone, noting that the words "Dalton McGuinty" or "Liberal" do not appear anywhere in the energy document. Nor will the papers include the sorts of marginal hot-button issues, such as the promise to implement forced prison labour, that characterized Mr. Hudak's last platform.

Before last fall's election, the official conceded, the Tories didn't think voters were ready for a serious-minded debate about adjusting to Ontario's new fiscal and economic realities. Now, having lost a campaign many thought was theirs to win, they'll try to win over the public with "big ideas" about "rethinking government's role."

In a speech last week at the Ontario Power Summit, Mr. Hudak hinted at the sort of changes that the first paper will propose. The Tories, he said, will call for a partial sale of the province's two big hydro utilities – Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One – to public-sector pension funds, potentially followed by offering shares to the private sector.

It's unclear how many of the policies unveiled this week, and in the four or five other papers to be released before the end of this year, will find their way into Mr. Hudak's next platform. While insisting they won't just be "trial balloons," the official indicated they won't yet be official party policy, either.

More than generating buzz about any one policy, the strategy appears intended to persuade Ontarians that Mr. Hudak has lots of policies he wants to talk about, and isn't just the caricature of an opposition politician he first appeared.

That's consistent with more subtle messaging changes in recent months. Mr. Hudak has made a visible effort to stop speaking in sound bites, and let other caucus members take the lead in hammering Mr. McGuinty's Liberals on the Ornge scandal. Meanwhile, seeking to show he's giving serious thought to Ontario's place in the world, he let it be known that he recently made trips to New York City and Washington, D.C. to meet with business and political insiders.

To date, those efforts have mostly gone unnoticed, because they were overshadowed by his decision to flatly reject this spring's seemingly right-of-centre budget – a move that forced Mr. McGuinty's minority government to bargain with the third-party NDP.

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Even with more substantive policies to put forward, it won't be easy for Mr. Hudak to avoid reinforcing negative first impressions. He still struggles to come off sincere and human when the cameras are on. And the day-to-day grind of opposition politics – not to mention a coming by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo, and the pressures of holding together a hawkish caucus – could again play to his worst instincts.

But he has long insisted, and so have many of the people close to him, that he's a policy wonk at heart. The white papers – in their content, in how he presents them, and in how they inform his pitch to Ontarians thereafter – will help put that claim to the test.

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