The path of least resistance for Tim Hudak would have been to hope the expenses controversy involving one of his most prominent caucus members would fade away on its own.
Instead, by firing Peter Shurman as his finance critic on the eve of the Ontario Legislature's return from its summer break, the Progressive Conservative Leader breathed new life into it – taking a short-term hit in the hope that he is sparing himself worse pain down the road.
Mr. Shurman's ouster from his party's front bench, a senior source in Mr. Hudak's office said, was to avoid further damage to a conservative brand already badly damaged by the federal Senate scandal. And Mr. Hudak was no doubt less than eager to have his point man on criticizing government spending unable to open his mouth without being reminded of his own indiscretions.
But clearly, this was about something else as well: an embattled leader sending a signal to members of his restless party that for as long as he's in charge, he's going to demand their respect.
Mr. Shurman's behaviour, following last week's revelation that he was exploiting a loophole to collect more than $20,000 annually in Toronto living expenses while choosing to live far away from his GTA riding, certainly gave the impression that respect was in short supply. Knowing that his leader wanted him to do everything in his power to make the controversy go away, he essentially refused.
Rather than accepting sole responsibility, Mr. Shurman said that Mr. Hudak had approved his allowance. (Mr. Hudak denies that's the case.) When he could have showed contrition, he instead gave interviews playing the victim, saying he was being subjected to "horrific attacks" after he had "claimed an allowance that was due." And when Mr. Hudak asked him to repay the money he had collected, he said no – resulting in the confrontation that apparently led to his demotion.
There is perhaps something refreshing about a politician refusing to pretend to be sorry for something when he doesn't actually believe he did anything wrong. Coming from a stubborn MPP known to be extremely sensitive to the slightest suggestion that his integrity is anything less than impeccable, Mr. Shurman's response was nothing if not honest.
But it also felt as though Mr. Shurman was testing his leader's limits, however inadvertently. Mr. Hudak was already under siege from members of his own caucus, from powerful organizers within his party and from the talk-radio crowd that has some clout with his base – all of whom have seized on modestly disappointing by-election results as grounds for a leadership review. Would he really be willing to alienate a high-profile MPP who to this point was defending him publicly?
Indeed, the firing may well have added to Mr. Hudak's troubles headed into the Tories' policy convention later this month. Mr. Shurman surely has at least a few friends and supporters who will now be among the disgruntled; meanwhile, Mr. Hudak faces accusations that he's a hypocrite because of Mr. Shurman's claim that he was just fine with the allowance before it came to light.
But at this point, that may pale in comparison to the risk of being seen as weak. To ask Mr. Shurman to accept he had not met his party's standards, then shrug and move on when he said no, would have signalled to anyone who found out that Mr. Hudak could be easily walked over.
For Mr. Hudak, merely keeping the leadership won't be worth much if he's incapable of imposing the discipline that our party system for better or worse requires. The path of least resistance might only have made his life even more difficult later.