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Tim Hudak is seen by his supporters as the political heir to Mike Harris. (Yvonne Berg/Yvonne Berg)
Tim Hudak is seen by his supporters as the political heir to Mike Harris. (Yvonne Berg/Yvonne Berg)

Andrew Steele

Winning wounded Add to ...

Two months ago, the Ontario PC Party executive decided on a snap leadership election, over the objections of many in the party who felt that a longer race would both attract more new members and provide a more intense debate of ideas.

But a two-month timeline was set in hopes that it would be a fast and clean coronation of the only candidate with an organization-in-waiting, Tim Hudak.

On paper, Hudak looked imposing. A former cabinet minister and caucus veteran, but just 41 years old. The finance critic and a man with strong connections to the Harris-era organization. A Blue Tory in a time when moderate red was no longer in vogue, thanks to the failure of John Tory.

Hudak assembled a very strong campaign cabinet, including Tom Long and Leslie Noble who ran Mike Harris' back-to-back majorities. He ran away from the pack on endorsements, including the big guy himself, former Premier Harris.

The campaign strategy was simple: be the frontrunner and the safe consensus choice. Speak ill of no one, to maximize the second-choice growth potential. Let the party see a Hudak victory as inevitable, and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unfortunately, there may have been too much belief in the self-fulfilling nature of prophecy for Mr. Hudak's good. Pesky facts kept getting in the way.

At the first fundraising deadline, Hudak's results were miserable. His campaign quickly moved to file more donations, but the air was leaking from the inevitability of Hudak's win.

Days before the membership cut-off another massive error, this time on policy. The strategy on policy had been to keep the powder dry and leave no ugly issues for the Liberals to manipulate in a general election.

However, Randy Hillier was getting some attention for policy like freedom-of-conscience legislation and abolishing the Human Rights Commission. This was all red meat to PC-base voters, and blogs were cheering Hillier.

Concerned about the positive coverage Hillier's policy was getting, the Hudak campaign aped one of Hillier's policy positions. The chose to also call for the abolition of the Human Rights Commission.

The result was a disaster, compounded when Christine Elliott and Frank Klees compared the policy to the faith-based funding plank and called it "toxic." Their criticism turned the policy into the crux of the campaign, and it ate up almost a third of the final televised debate between the candidates.

Finally, Hudak faltered badly on selling memberships, the core responsibility of a leadership campaign. Team Hudak was clearly hustled by Team Klees, as we can all see now from the results. But Hudak's people made it worse with ham-handed spin that changed over several days, making it look as if they were making their sales up at the last minute in reaction to Klees' surprising strength.

The result of these three misjudgements was the popping of Hudak's aura of inevitability. The Elliott campaign worked the media to assume that mantle, and some bought that obvious fiction. Among those were Team Hudak, who quickly built a second-ballot strategy around the only guy they knew wouldn't be a challenger: Randy Hillier.

Who know what was promised to Hillier in the weeks leading up to the voting? The lack of transparency in those negotiations leaves the Liberals and media in the enviable position of being able to contruct any fantasy they want. Until Hudak or Hillier come clean on the deal, they will face inevitable difficulty.

But the deal was clearly made. Hillier, never a subtle man, made it very obvious where he wanted his supporters to mark their number two.

In the days leading up to voting, still more problems marred the contest. The most serious is a police investigation aimed at intimidation tactics used against new Canadians. A false report was sent to voters with "unambiguously ethnic" names, claiming the RCMP was looking for voter fraud in the race and spelling out the penalties. As the new leader, the pressure will be on to Hudak to explain why his party is taking on an appearance of hostility to new Canadians.

As the counting played out, several other facts become clear.

Frank Klees emerged as a powerful voice in the party. Controlling almost as many supporters as Hudak, and those being over represented in the 905 region that is the battleground of any election in Ontario, makes Klees a major figure in the party for years to come.

Christine Elliott also demonstrated that a Red Tory is no longer viable in the Ontario PC Party. Despite enjoying the additional benefit of many Blue Tory supporters of her husband, Jim Flaherty, Elliott's "compassionate conservatism" was firmly rejected. Not even the adoption of regressive flat tax policy could win enough support to someone who wanted to run a moderate general election campaign.

The biggest lesson to emerge is this: the old PC Party, the big-tent party of Frost, Robarts and David, is dead. The new PC Party is a collection of factions - libertarians, rural reactionaries, social conservatives, neo-conservatives, Red Tories - none of whom like or trust the others.

With barely one-third of the party in his corner when voting started this morning, Tim Hudak has little chance of pulling those factions together quickly.

Hudak will provide a solid opposition to Premier Dalton McGuinty. The opposition's success in driving the eHealth scandal shows they are more than capable of hurling mud and keeping their opponents living in fear. The PC Party, and a new leader for the Ontario NDP, should keep the Liberals under much greater scrutiny from now on.

But Tim Hudak will not find it easy to say what he stands for tomorrow.

Will he repeal the single sales tax or keep it? Will he repeal the Ontario Health Premium or keep it? Will he abolish the Human Rights Commission or fix it? Will he support faith-based schools or not? Does he support freedom-of-conscience legislation, or the spring bear hunt, or McGuinty's recent corporate tax cuts?

Hudak's way forward is obvious. Some of the middle-level people around him earned themselves jobs in the OLO. Others earned themselves only infamy. There were too many mistakes from his campaign office to merit a wholesale move to Queen's Park. He will need to carefully choose who to reward and who to discard.

His caucus will need to be listened to far more than John Tory did.

Where Tory treated caucus as a burden, Hudak will need to treat them as his greatest asset. Clearly, without his lead among caucus supporters, Hudak would possibly have lost the race.

Finally, he will need to grow. Dalton McGuinty assumed his party's leadership under worse conditions, and grew into the best Liberal politician of his generation. Hudak will need a similar growth curve if he is to challenge McGuinty with real substance and a clear vision for Ontario.

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