Monte McNaughton is launching a bid to lead the Progressive Conservatives, promising to rid the party of "insiders and lobbyists" and give more power to grassroots members.
"Our party's become the party of big business and corporations and big money," he said in an interview at his Queen's Park office Wednesday, flanked by his wife Kate and infant daughter, Annie. "If we're going to win, and if we're going to connect with everyday people …we have to change the culture and have policies that relate to them."
The 37-year-old two-term Member of Provincial Parliament from Southwestern Ontario is the second candidate to officially declare. He is one of a parade of candidates expected to jump into the race in the coming days.
Northern Ontario MPP Vic Fedeli has scheduled a barbecue event next Wednesday in Toronto at which, party insiders say, he will announce his own bid. Federal Conservative MP Patrick Brown has been building up an organization over the summer, with a website extolling his virtues as a potential leader. Ottawa-area MPP Lisa MacLeod, meanwhile, has been lining up endorsements from fellow MPPs, who have been steadily peppering party members with messages drumming up support.
Christine Elliott, MPP for a Greater Toronto Area riding, launched her campaign two months ago.
The party executive is meeting Saturday to determine the rules of the contest, which will be held next spring.
All the likely candidates are expected to propose various ways of increasing democracy within the party to avoid a repeat of the June election, during which MPPs and grassroots members alike were blindsided by then-leader Tim Hudak's promise to slash 100,000 public sector jobs.
Mr. McNaughton said the only way to stop policies like that one, or John Tory's famously unpopular proposal to extend public funding to faith-based schools in 2007, is to make it mandatory for party membership to sign off on campaign platforms and policies.
"Those proposals, I'm quite confident, would never have passed through the party membership," Mr. McNaughton said. "We have to stop these few insiders from coming up with disastrous election campaign pledges."
He also said he would reach out to university students, New Canadians, small business owners and blue-collar workers to entice them to the party.
Mr. McNaughton said he will roll out a substantive policy agenda over the course of the lengthy campaign. But he offered one promise: to push for better government customer service, such as allowing people to access services on evenings and weekends, for instance.
A native of Newbury, Ont., Mr. McNaughton grew up working in the family hardware store. He sat on local council before he was elected to the legislature in 2011. He represents Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, a largely rural constituency that sprawls southwest of London, Ont.
"I'm a young dad, I'm a small business owner, I've met a payroll for 60 people," he said. "I think I'm the generational change that the party needs, quite frankly. I have a track record of listening to people.
One of the youngest members of the legislature, Mr. McNaughton is banking his fresh-faced earnestness will set him apart in a crowded field of contenders. But he will likely face some difficulty for his close association with some of Mr. Hudak's less popular policies. As labour critic, for instance, Mr. McNaughton was often called on to promote Mr. Hudak's hard line on unions, including right-to-work legislation.
Also like Mr. Hudak, he has a tendency to stick closely to script.
Mr. McNaughton's campaign will be chaired by fellow MPP Bob Bailey. Among his advisers is former provincial treasurer Darcy McKeough, a heavyweight in the cabinet of Bill Davis.
The PC party, which once held office for two generations in the province, has now been on the opposition benches 11 years – the longest stretch in a century. Mr. McNaughton says the party can only win the 2018 election if it attracts more members by giving them more control in the party.
"We need to build a modern conservative party," he said. "We're really getting an earful from party members that we need to not have the party be top down any longer. I think it's a reason why 10 years ago we had 100,000 party members, and today we have 10,000."