Hudak Remains the Man to Lead Ontario’s PCs

By Angus Gillespie

Now that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak has received the strong endorsement of 79 per cent of his party’s membership following the recent annual general meeting (AGM) held in Niagara Falls, it will be up to he and his new team to prove that the continued faith in his leadership has been warranted.  Part of the main group looking to get him elected as premier will be incoming Conservative President Richard Ciano, who had been critical of Hudak’s campaign in the 2011 election in what resulted in a loss to Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.  Ciano defeated more well-known candidates, including former cabinet minister John Snobelen and former Canadian Taxpayers Federation head Kevin Gaudet, to capture the president’s seat.    

Despite his previous criticisms of the party leader, the 38-year-old Ciano is set to do whatever he can to see Hudak become the next elected premier of Canada’s largest province.  His biggest claim to fame up until now has been successfully helping Rob Ford win the mayor’s position in Toronto.  Some of the previous backlash from Ciano and others centred on how certain influential members of Hudak’s inner circle seemed to run the October 6 election campaign based on polls rather than listening to what was being said by the likes of constituents, handlers and other candidates.  Ironically, that’s what critics have said about McGuinty.  

About 1,600 delegates were on hand in Niagara Falls last month at the ScotiaBank Convention Centre where Hudak received 977 of the 1,241 ballots cast.  He told reporters at the time that he’d be speaking more from the “gut and the heart” in the future.  Nonetheless, garnering close to 80 per cent support is certainly not easy to accomplish, especially under such difficult circumstances.  By comparison, former leader John Tory received 67 per cent support in his leadership vote at the 2008 AGM prior to stepping aside when John Runciman took over on an interim basis.   

“If you’re disappointed we lost (the election), how do you think I feel,” Hudak stated at the convention. “We’re going to make sure we run a campaign you can be proud of.”  He’s also philosophical in recognizing nobody will ever gain 100 per cent from any party, that’s just how the system works.

“We could probably put a motion forward that the party colour should be blue and people would vote against it,” he quipped.

Officials also told delegates the party is $6.2 million in debt, but hopes to reduce that to about $2 million later this year through new fundraising. The controversial topic of placing former Hamilton television newscaster Donna Skelly into a different riding, pushing aside the previous candidate, also drew lots of debate from party faithful.  Ultimately, the plan backfired, leaving some members of the Conservatives exceedingly irate.  It resulted in Skelly’s nomination meeting being cancelled leaving the door wide open for the Liberals to cruise to an easy victory.

During a recent interview with The Canadian Business Journal, the official opposition leader did not shy away from any of the criticisms he’s faced from within his own party, prior to and at the convention, with respect to the shortcomings of the election campaign. 

“In short, we did a terrific job of talking about what was wrong with Dalton McGuinty,” Hudak tells us.  “We did not do a good enough job in saying what we would do right.”

Hudak also says he felt confident that the party delegates were still behind him heading into the annual general meeting, which was hosted in his own region of Niagara. 

“I was very pleased with our annual general meeting in Niagara Falls,” Hudak says.  “It’s not an easy thing to go through as a leader, but it’s an important part of our grassroots character in the Ontario PC Party, where a leader has to go before members to reaffirm his or her leadership.  Given our party has a bit of a history of being pretty tough on its leaders, I was very pleased with the solid, clear endorsement of my leadership.”

To find an example of an unforgiving PC delegation, one need only go back as far as John Tory, who guided the Conservatives just prior to Hudak.  Tory ultimately stepped aside as provincial leader following an election loss to Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals in 2007.  To this day, many political pundits believe Tory was primarily beaten due to a campaign that was dominated by discussion of his plan to extend public funding to Ontario’s faith-based schools.  Despite attempts to pull back on that stance, which included Tory promising a free vote on the contentious issue, the damage could not be undone.

Although the Conservatives came up shorter than expected in the election, they did manage to gain an additional 12 seats, while the Liberals lost 17 overall, dropping them to minority status. All of these factors in combination, also helped keep a positive tone for having Hudak continue on as leader for a second run.

“Quite frankly, after losing an election where expectations were high, even though we added 16 MPPs, we thought we’d have low attendance and wondered what the level of enthusiasm would be,” Hudak states.  “I was thrilled we had 1,600 people, which is about the kind of attendance we’d get back under Mike Harris and the government days.  Morale was extremely high.  Not only did I get the strong and clear endorsement from party members, but we had more people running for our party executive than any time since 1990 and the first three-way race for our party president since World War Two.”

Hudak went on to say the next six months of the Conservative mandate will include holding the government to account on a short leash, and also outlining a clear Conservative alternative that will focus on the big issues such as the jobs and debt crises. 

“Ontario has gone from the engine that used to drive Canada to being a have-not province that is hemorrhaging private sector jobs,” Hudak notes.  “We’ve put ideas on the table like lowering business taxes, getting our energy rates back to being reliable and affordable and also put forward ideas of creating 200,000 jobs in the skilled trades – jobs for electricians, plumbers and welders by reforming the apprenticeship system and taking it out of the 1970s and bringing it into the 21st Century.”

Following the recent release of the unbiased, objective Drummond Report, commissioned by the government, it became quite apparent that government spending has spiralled out of control and needs to be reined in.

“Dalton McGuinty has basically said yes to everything for too long,” Hudak says.  “Now he’s dug us a massive hole.  Job one is to stop digging.”