"This is my voice!" Tim Hudak shouted, during the crescendo of the most important speech he's given since last October's Ontario election.
Obvious though this may have seemed, the underlying argument was a winning one for Progressive Conservatives gathered in Niagara Falls this weekend. Their leader is vowing to start talking about stuff that matters – to him, to them, to the province – rather than just be an automaton spewing focus-group-tested talking points. Acknowledging his campaign focused too much on "secondary issues," he now promises a big-picture economic vision, delivered seriously rather than glibly.
Better late than never, and not just because it helped earn 79 per cent in his leadership review. On Wednesday, the long-awaited release of economist Don Drummond's report on public-service reform will kick into high gear the debate about how to tame a $16-billion deficit. Meanwhile, Mr. Drummond and others are projecting less than 2-per-cent annual economic growth. A youngish conservative leader, with fresh ideas about how to make things better, has a big window.
Now, he just has to figure out what those ideas are.
It would be a big stretch to suggest Mr. Hudak articulated serious plans for economic renewal or fiscal sustainability in Saturday's speech. The basic principles he laid out – that government shouldn't try to pick winners and losers, that it should only do things it needs to do – are vagaries he offered during the last campaign, on the rare occasions he wasn't advocating chain gangs or attacking "foreign workers."
Mr. Hudak has been a little more specific at other points recently. But when he's pushed specific policies, it's been more to drive the news cycle than propose major changes to the way the province is run. A mandatory public-sector wage freeze could bring some savings over the next couple of years; it wouldn't do much to address structural problems that threaten the future of public services.
It's no great shame Mr. Hudak doesn't have the big answers yet. He's spent the past few months adjusting to new political realities, including his role in the province's first minority legislature since the 1980s. And the truth is, nobody has the answers.
But Mr. McGuinty, with tax reforms and a green-energy jobs strategy and even his commissioning of Mr. Drummond, has tried harder to find them. And these are the efforts that will soon be expected of someone who wants to take over the stewardship of Ontario during one of the most daunting periods in its history.
In the next few months, we'll learn much about whether Mr. Hudak is up to the task.
There are considerable attributes that have been evident even through his struggles to date. He's a quick brief. He's personally disciplined. He takes criticism well.
What he has not yet demonstrated, at least publicly, is much curiosity.
This is the time for Mr. Hudak to do what Mr. McGuinty has done over the years: indulge his inner policy wonk by looking to other jurisdictions for solutions that haven't landed here yet, or seeking out experts in their fields and learning from them. If he can settle on fresh policies, then find straightforward and compelling ways to present them to voters, he might finally be able to present himself as a premier-in-waiting rather than just an opposition politician.
Finding his voice, or at least a more appealing one than we heard last campaign, is relatively easy. Figuring out what he wants to say with it is the tricky part.