For a time in 2013, the leader of Ontario's Official Opposition took to warning his province that it was at risk of winding up like Detroit.
To anyone passingly familiar with the hollowed-out city across the river from Windsor – a place that has suffered so much from crime, poverty, systemic corruption, racial tensions and migration that it can seem almost post-apocalyptic – the comparison was absurd. It was also easy to understand why Tim Hudak felt compelled to make it, and why he might make similar reaches in the early stages of 2014, heading into a likely spring election.
Based on the policy papers he has released to date, Mr. Hudak will try to sell voters on some tough medicine, including a major shrinking of government's scope and war with organized labour. But before he can get them to accept his prescription, he needs them to take seriously his diagnosis that the province faces an economic and fiscal crisis.
Laying that groundwork, senior members of Mr. Hudak's Progressive Conservative Party concede, has proven more difficult than expected. It seems obvious to them that Ontario, with a projected $11-billion deficit and an unemployment rate persistently above the national average and a government that doesn't seem to know what to do about either, is in deep trouble. But there is little indication that enough voters feel the same way – at least, not enough where the Tories need them.
In the province's southwest, much of which has been turned into a rust belt by the decline of traditional manufacturing, there is no shortage of anger about the hardship being endured and fear about communities' future. The problem for the Tories is that they already hold most of the seats there, with the chance for only a handful of pickups. Where they really need to break through, in order to win power, is in a part of the province that isn't feeling nearly as insecure.
There are plenty of public-policy concerns in the Greater Toronto Area, about quality-of-life and the calibre of public services and making ends meet. But it is still growing at a good clip, and largely sheltered from the woes elsewhere, and there is little of the same sense that Ontario urgently needs an overhaul of economic policy.
Nor is there as much angst as the Tories had hoped for, there or elsewhere, about the provincial deficit. The governing Liberals were provided cover by the federal Conservatives (and many, many others) taking a recessionary dive into red ink at the same time they did. And that cover seems to have held even as Ontario has been slower than other Canadian jurisdictions to climb out of it, at least to the extent that there seems to be limited enthusiasm for major sacrifices to get back in the black.
Sources say Mr. Hudak is now facing calls from within his party's ranks to step away from the hard right, and run on a more moderate platform. But the PC Leader, who has repeatedly vowed to be truer to his conservative principles in the next campaign than he was in his first at the Tories' helm, is said to have little interest in that climb-down. And even if he did, it would be difficult for him to credibly disown policies that he has already effectively endorsed.
He is left to hope, then, that he can somehow get enough Ontarians to take his word for it that there's a crisis, if they're not feeling it themselves. Perhaps the spotlight as an election draws nearer will help with that, or maybe the sort of bad economic news opposition leaders quietly hope will come at the right time.
His fellow Tories, meanwhile, should hope that this year they won't have to witness Mr. Hudak sing some variation of his Motown tune. Because if that's heard again, it will be another manifestation of his frustration getting others to see his province's plight the way he does.