The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario is a rambunctious outfit. It's been said that a member vote could be taken to reaffirm our colour as blue and a third would vote it down – just, well, because.
In good times, it's part of our charm: Ours is a wide-open party, full of people with good intentions and bursting with ideas for making Ontario a better place. In difficult times, however, the tendency borders on suicidal. And these suddenly appear to have become difficult times. The question we need to ask is, why?
Mindful of this quirk of ours, I watched with dread as Premier Kathleen Wynne called the five Aug. 1 by-elections – in the dead of summer, guaranteeing a meagre voter turnout, which every student of politics knows favours the incumbents (who've won 18 of the last 26 since 1995). In fact, the last time the Ontario PCs won a by-election in a seat we didn't already hold was in 1994, just months before Mike Harris's first majority win – from third place.
Still, Windsor-Tecumseh delivered its best PC showing since 1963, as noted by The Windsor Star. The second, in London West, was scrambled by the Liberals' unfathomable decision to rig the nomination for the very teachers union turncoat who, just months before, had boasted of the havoc he had wrought for the party. This ensured just the kind of "Berlin Airlift" of concentrated union muscle in support of the New Democrats we all saw on lurid display in last September's contest in Kitchener-Waterloo. The third, in Scarborough-Guildwood, remained Liberal owing to a shameless vote-buying about-face in favour of subways. (Whiff of gas, anyone?) A fourth, in Ottawa South, has been a McGuinty family fief for a generation. Despite these obstacles, we finished second in all four.
That left Etobicoke-Lakeshore – the scene of a breakthrough. Not since 1999 has a Conservative won anywhere within the 416. This is an undeniable achievement for leader Tim Hudak – as well as for candidate Doug Holyday, of course.
Across the board, the Progressive Conservatives garnered far more votes than either of the other two, in a demonstration of momentum that foretells victory in the next election: 54,368 PC votes, versus 47,213 for the Liberals and 45,941 for the NDP. Indeed, the Liberal vote collapsed in all of them – each a former Liberal fortress held by four ministers and one premier. But now, "the knives are out," all because of wonky splits on the left and a couple of predictably erroneous polls.
In fact, these aren't knives. They're plastic spoons, wielded by a handful of cranks and abetted by a clique of narcissists who have opted to put their own political vanity ahead of the best interests of a Conservative enterprise that is clearly on the move. The core group of agitators remains largely anonymous, too – just when I imagine Ontarians are fed up with nameless "sources" conducting their vendettas through the media.
This, in turn, has led to a torrent of incoherent commentary: Hudak has no policy. No, Hudak has plenty of policy, but it's too right-wing. No, it's not right-wing enough. Hudak is no Mike Harris. Hudak is a Mike Harris clone. Hudak is too nice. Hudak is too mean.
Around and around it goes, threatening to tear us apart from within just when we should be bracing for victory in an election as early as this fall, on the strength of measurable momentum behind a capable and good man with a clear plan for turning Ontario around: lower taxes, affordable energy, leaner and more accountable government, an assault on the Liberals' utterly unsustainable deficits and debt.
Mr. Hudak is right. He's been right all along. It's time to put away the pirate hats and wooden swords, and let him get on with the job of defeating a corrupt, exhausted and dangerously profligate Liberal regime. Ontario conservatives have seen this movie before. As in 1995, let's play it to the final reel, and another happy ending.
Peter Varley is a former director of communications in Ontario's Office of the Leader of the Opposition.