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Andrew Steele

Neck and neck - and all of them red Add to ...

Two months ago, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party looked set to hold a quickie leadership convention, anoint Tim Hudak as a new leader that was unburdened by divisive or controversial pledges, and quickly unite to fight the 2011 election while keeping the spotlight firmly on Dalton McGuinty and the recession.

Instead, the past few weeks featured the leadership campaigns continually spinning the spotlight back on themselves as they perform a grotesque ritual of self-immolation.

For instance, until today, there was only conjecture that the Hudak campaign had lost its front-runner status.

However, by failing to confirm an e-mail sent from Mr. Hudak's campaign headquarters last Friday night that boasted of bringing in 14,000 new members, the Hudak campaign implicitly acknowledged that their Friday night spin is, to use a phrase from Watergate, inoperative .

As a result, the estimate of 10,000 new Klees-supporting members, 8,000 Elliot members, 7,000 Hudak members and 3,000 Hillier members stands unchallenged.

If these numbers are true, then it really is anyone's ballgame (except probably Hillier.)

This unchallenged belief of membership parity led to a new punchiness, as the gloves were off in today's debate between the leadership candidates.

Christine Elliot landed the heaviest blow with her accusation that Tim Hudak's policy of eliminating the Human Rights Tribunal is handing the Liberals another faith-based schools debacle to use against the PC Party in the next election.

Certainly, the content of the pledge itself, and more dangerously its context of pandering to Mr. Hillier's reactionary supporters for second-ballot votes, threatens to make Mr. Hudak look willing to promise anything he is told will help him win.

In truth, all of the candidates are equally compromised by this metric of electoral risk. All of them have policies or biographical elements that will provide fodder to the next Liberal campaign.

Here are a few obvious skeleton's in the closets of each of the other candidates:

Christine Elliot

It is somewhat astonishing that Ms. Elliot would make the accusation that eliminating the Human Rights Tribunal is another faith-based schools, because Ms. Elliot's flat tax proposal is a clanger that makes the faith-based schools fisaco look like Family Day.

Ms. Elliot's own policy backgrounder sets the cost of this tax break at $6.5-billion. That's $6.5-billion that will have to come out of health care or education, since the amount dwarfs the budgets of most other ministries. Ms. Elliot has refused to speculate on how she will pay for this pledge, understandable as there is no good answer.

But what will really stick in the craw of Ontario voters is that the reform will benefit the very rich far more than anyone else.

Moving to a flat tax would in effect leave those of modest income subsidizing a tax break for the wealthy either through reduced public services or higher taxes. (Under Ms. Elliot's plan, it is unclear which of these options, or the unsustainable third of deficit financing, she would propose.)

Combined with her policies to halt increases in the minimum wage and bring back the 60-hour work week, it would be easy for the Liberals to decry Ms. Elliot's platform as divisive class-warfare pitting rich against poor.

Frank Klees

Like Mr. Hudak and Ms. Elliot, Frank Klees carries his own faith-based school funding-type clanger into any election campaign.

In Mr. Klees's case, it's actually faith-based school funding.

Mr. Klees was widely fingered in both the media and the PC Party as the principle proponent of the controversial measure.

In a post-election interview , Mr. Klees admitted he is a "consistent advocate" of assistance for parents who choose to send their kids to private schools, religious or otherwise. However, Mr. Klees claims his preferred option would be reinstating the Harris-Eves measure of a tax credit for parents who send their children to any private school.

Needless to say, this is not a particularly popular position either.

In addition, Mr. Klees's general socially conservative positioning would violate one of the principle lessons of Mike Harris's success: be fiscally conservative, but avoid socially conservative issues like abortion.

Randy Hillier

If the Liberals are smart they won't do anything to a victorious Mr. Hillier except hand him a bullhorn.

A champion of such popular causes as pit bulls and pesticides, most every verbal eruption from PC leader Hillier would stampede swing Tories into the Liberal fold while frightening New Democrats into strategic voting. Luckily for the PC Party, the rural anarchist is unlikely to win.

Instead, the principle challenge for the PC Party is that Mr. Hillier will almost certainly be the kingmaker, despite his extreme toxicity to the PC Party brand.

As the likely fourth place finisher and first to have his supporters' ballots reapportioned to their second choice, it will be critical to woo Mr. Hillier's voters to win this leadership. With the three other candidates potentially bunched within ten percent of each other, Mr. Hillier's supporters would be the difference between Hudak, Klees or Elliot making it through the second round of balloting or being eliminated.

The result is a predictable rush to pander to Mr. Hillier's reactionary supporters, a dangerous state of affairs for a party that is already inundated by leadership candidates with policy vulnerabilities galore.

Ms. Elliot was right that the Human Rights Tribunal policy is the equivalent of handing the Liberals a stick for beating Tories during the election.

The challenge is all the candidates are handing the Liberals so many different sticks that the government's principle challenge will be picking what order to employ them in.

The only advice on offer is to stop.

Mr. Hudak and Ms. Elliot should get together in a quiet restaurant and recreate the epic Granita Pact between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

One will be leader and eventually premier for two terms. The other will be finance minister with fundamental control for economic policy and heir apparent with a guarantee of the next premiership. Upon concluding the deal, the second party would then withdraw from the leadership and endorse the first, coalescing the moderate and Blue Tory factions and propelling the first party to an easy first ballot victory.

The alternative is a disastrous and unpredictable three weeks until voting during which Hudak and Elliot attempt to out bid each other for the support of the PC Party's most unelectable factions. As Adam Radwanski points out , it is even conceivable that the unelectable Mr. Klees wins the leadership.

Only a deal like this could prevent this unfolding car crash from getting any worse.

Note: The title of this article is a reworking of a comment on an earlier Globe article. My thanks to the commentator for the inspiration.

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