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andrew steele

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak delivers the keynote address at the party's annual general meeting in Ottawa on March 6, 2010.Pawel Dwulit

"Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is pouring cold water on an idea from one of his backbenchers who wants Toronto to become its own province. Tory maverick Bill Murdoch says rural Ontario is losing a battle against a Toronto mentality in the provincial government and would be better off if the city were its own province."

Let's look at this the way Bill Murdoch means it.

The Bruce Peninsula MPP is not suggesting that Toronto accede to provincial status. It only sounds that way to those Annex-walking navel-gazers who think the Earth ends at Lawrence Avenue and believe Toronto City Hall requires provincial powers to get its house in order.

More importantly, that's not who Murdoch is talking to. He's talking to the rural base of the PC Party. And what he's saying, as clear as a bell, is that he wants rural Ontario to separate.

Assorted separatisms occasionally pop up in Ontario's discourse. Northerners from time to time resort to this kind of thinking, particularly the area west of the Lakehead.

But the idea of rural Ontario separatism feeds into a large and somewhat ignored political phenomenon gripping Ontario's countryside.

Along the Highway 7 corridor that forms Ontario's "blue belt," just about the biggest political thing going right now is the Ontario Landowners Association. Here they are founding an association in Muskoka, exploiting anger over a tree cutting by-law. And here are the Landowners complaining about animal control officers in the Brampton Guardian.

In Lanark County, birthplace of the movement, the Landowners are planning to run a municipal slate of councilors for the 2010 election, according to the OLA website.

The Landowners came out to play at big municipal land-use hearings underway in Markham, stacking the meeting with 100 of their troops from all over mid-Eastern Ontario. The Peterborough County Landowners' Association is calling for the dissolution of conservation authorities so people can be free to build on wetlands.

Closer to home, Carleton Landowners are currently active in Ottawa municipal politics, calling for separation for rural Carleton County from the City of Ottawa. And again in Muskoka, a lively dispute over snowmobile trails has broken out with the Landowners in centre stage. Back in Eastern Ontario, Goulbourn Landowners are upset about orchid regulations and are refusing to let provincial inspectors on their land.

This is a vast and growing movement, which has become a fact of rural politics in Ontario despite being mostly ignored by media outside of local weekly coverage. But ask Reeves or Wardens across rural county councils what their biggest challenge is for the 2010 election, and they don't cite the economy or infrastructure or local roads. They point to this insurgency of populist outrage.

On some of these issues, PC members of the legislature are getting in on the Landowners' Act.

Norm Miller from Parry Sound-Muskoka has promised Landowners' to raise the snowmobile issue in the legislature. Renfrew's John Yakabuski joined with Landowners founder Randy Hillier to back up a particularly oddball lawsuit from landowners head McLaren against a provincial Crown attorney.

OLA politics is spilling over into PC human resources as well. No one can agree what happened, but Landowners leader Shawn Carmichael had his application to run for the nomination in Leeds-Grenville either withdrawn or denied by the party executive.

MPP Norm Sterling has a long standing dispute with the Landowners, who he believes had a lot of influence at the PC Party conventions. Sterling believes Landowner involvement in 2004 was what prevented John Tory from getting over 70 per cent support in the 2004 leadership race. Perhaps in response, Landowners leader Jack MacLaren plans on contesting the nomination for Sterling's seat in 2011.

So make no mistake: Murdoch's call for rural separatism is pure OLA politics.

A smart populist like Murdoch never has his finger an inch away from the pulse of the people who live on the county line roads. He knows that rural separatism is a convenient banner for holding together the collection of resentments OLA advocates exploit without needing to take a position on each one. Instead, calling for expelling Toronto from Ontario is a convenient way to get heads nodding without having to actually take the hard positions on ending protection of drinking water or other Landowner policy asks.

Hudak's response -- see what you get, McGuinty, for not doing enough for these folks -- is a fairly predictable straddle. Pointing to one's own radical fellow-travellers in order to compel people of good will into an accommodating mode is not an illegitimate strategy.

Robert Bourassa used it to ask Quebec Anglophone federalists to make concessions to Quebec nationalism: 'See these separatists? I need to quiet them down. More powers for my province would be a good first step...' The pitch worked well with policy elites who are prepared to compromise, but fell flat among voters in the Meech and Charlottetown exercises.

Barack Obama tried to turn the same trick when his pastor's fulminations raised the question of the candidate's affiliation with the radical-cum-separatist Malcolm X tradition among African Americans. 'See these angry, radical African-Americans who say "god damn America" after 911? We need to settle these guys down. Say, how about you vote for me? That's a good first step...' This pitch, again, worked with the policy elites, but did nothing to reassure white Democrats, as the next run of poor primary results for Obama showed.

In short, Hudak's got a radical separatist problem. And he's using the tactics that centrist moderates typically use to defuse the issue. "See these angry rural separatists? We need to settle them down. Ending the Human Rights Tribunal would be a good first step."

As Bourassa and Obama show, it's a tactic that doesn't work. Its thin gruel for the hardliners and too much for the moderates. Only policy elites tend to fall for this kind of straddle.

Hudak will need to take a real position on these issues before the next election. The new Ontario PC leader made his name in simple emotional appeals to voters deep set fears. He will likely find it irresistible to begin the process of wooing the more radical elements of the landowner coalition.

The challenge for Hudak is the OLA deals in hard coin: nominations, policy specifics, seats at cabinet tables. We'll see what they really expect from Hudak's PCs, as nominations get underway and as Hudak's platform comes out.

When Hudak had to cut a deal with Hillier for the leadership, the coin was an end to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, and - rumour has it - much more. Will the next give to the rural separatists be an end to the Clean Water Act and the Drinking Water Source Protection Act? Or an end to Ontario's 36 Conservation Authorities that protect our watersheds? Or the end of the Food Safety and Quality Act?

Maybe Toronto will want to separate before this is all over.

(Photo: Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)