Changing the course of a political party, even slightly, can be like trying to turn a big ship. It takes commitment and time. Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party may not have either. A provincial election is likely as soon as this spring. And the Conservative ship shows no signs of turning.
In the 2011 election, the party led by Tim Hudak achieved the nearly impossible, pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. The campaign was Mr. Hudak's to lose, and lose it he did. Despite entering with a lead in the polls, and running against a misstep-prone government that appeared tired after nearly a decade in office, Mr. Hudak succeeded mainly in making middle-of-the-road voters nervous. He scared off enough of them to keep the Liberals in office.
In the next few months, the opposition is likely to bring down the Liberal minority government, voting against the spring budget and forcing an election. As in 2011, the Liberals will be campaigning weighed down by an economy still not fully recovered from the recession, a long-term budget deficit and their own serious policy mistakes, notably the Green Energy Act, which continues to drive up electricity rates across the province. The election will once again turn on the economy and fiscal situation. And it will once again be the Conservative party's to lose.
Last time around, in 2011, a key engine of distrust was what came to known as the chain-gang proposal. This was Mr. Hudak's plan to have prisoners in provincial jails put to manual labour in parks and on roadsides. Campaign materials claimed that forced labour "would free up taxpayer dollars to be spent on priorities like front-line health care." It was mean spiritedness masquerading as tough on crime, pretending to be deficit reduction. The bad idea first came up early in the campaign and resurfaced again and again, like a serial offender, helping to sink the Conservatives.
This year's chain gangs? In two words: Rob Ford. In more than two words: The polarizing, faux-conservative ideology of Fordism, the Ford Nation brand, and even the threatened presence on the Conservative ticket of Mayor Rob's big brother, Toronto councillor Doug Ford.
Politics is partly about policy platforms: If elected, here is what our party plans to do. But it is also about trust. Unexpected events will occur – a crisis, an accident, a natural disaster, a scandal – and a government will have to respond. Will they react with humanity or dogmatism? Will they be reasonable? Will they show good judgement? Voters are not only voting for policies. They are choosing people. Policies colour their views of those people, and vice versa. At the end of the day, voting for a party is always a bit of a leap of faith, and it comes down to trust. Can I trust these people? Are these my kind of people? Ontario's Conservatives will lose the election if the moderate middle of the electorate decides that they are not. It happened in 2011.
Mr. Hudak's Conservatives should be seeking to connect with that moderate middle. Like their federal colleagues, they must very carefully choose their policies, their priorities and their people. What kind of conservatives do the Conservatives want to be?
And in all of this, there's also something worse than turning off voters. There's governing badly. A Conservative party focused on wedge issues and satisfying the base risks more than just electoral defeat.
In the last election, Mr. Hudak was both too soft and too hard. The chain gang proposal was the hard, but on more important issues, he wasn't firm or clear. When it came to talking about what would be done to close Ontario's budget deficit, his railing against the proliferation of government agencies was like a dieter obsessing over an alleged excess of cutlery. It wasn't serious. And there is still more than a whiff of that about the Conservative platform, including the Ford-inspired call for less spending on transit in Toronto, but more spending on subways, the most expensive form of transit.
The next government is going to have to make difficult choices on spending. It is facing a deficit that simply will not disappear with a couple more years of economic recovery. At the same time, there are vital spending priorities that must be undertaken, and which cannot be paid for by magically finding unnamed efficiencies. Ontario's government will have to get smaller in some places, and smarter, but it may also need new revenues, too.
Two years ago, Don Drummond's commission on the province's fiscal situation wrote that, "the ultimate challenge in the years ahead will be to find ways to make government work better and preserve as much as possible the programs Ontarians cherish most." A party that credibly promised shared sacrificies in pursuit of that goal, and a brighter future beyond, combined with a willingness to make some decisions above partisanship, would stand a chance of appealing to those moderate middle voters. They have the power to crown a majority government, and they're just waiting to be won over.