2 min

Ontario PC leadership: returning to the era of mean

The fiery, feisty & possibly feckless Tim Hudak

TOUGH LOVE. Will Ontario's new PC leader Tim Hudak strike a chord with voters by playing into our fears rather than our hopes?

Remember the vicious, mean-spirited time Mike Harris spent as premier of Ontario? Remember welfare-to-work? Remember the province’s brinkmanship with teachers? Remember the amalgamation of cities and the offloading of services to them? Remember Harris de-listing from provincial health coverage for sex reassignment surgery — saving us just pennies on our tax bills?

The gunslingers of the 1990s are back following Saturday’s Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership convention. What organizers and pundits hoped would be an exciting, nail-biting, slow-release single-transferrable-vote convention turned out to be a boring slog toward the inevitable. The question is, are progressives better or worse off now that the polarizing Tim Hudak is the leader of the official opposition?

This was billed as the comeback convention for the once-natural governing party of Canada’s most populace province. PCs dominated Queen’s Park over a 40-year period, winning more than a dozen back-to-back elections. More recently, they’re remembered for the slash and burn politics of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves in the ’90s.

The race was to be a three-way squeaker between SoCon Frank Klees, self-styled compassionate conservative Christine Elliott, and Harris acolyte Tim Hudak.

Randy Hillier, the gun-totin’ hillbilly and former head of the Lanark Landowners Association (famous for his tractor protests) was the spoiler. He placed last on the first ballot, with Hudak slightly ahead of the other candidates.

The second and third ballots were no more interesting, with Hudak staying out front throughout.

As anyone who’s been following the PC leadership race knows, the defining issue came to be the elimination of Ontario’s human rights tribunals, which both Hudak and Bubba Hillier supported. Elliott called the issue “politically toxic” and compared it to former leader John Tory’s faith-based school funding pledge.

So, there’s that. It could be an albatross around Hudak’s neck, or, if he manages to divert attention away from it between now and 2011 (and he will certainly try), it could be one more pledge on the post-election checklist. Scary thought, right?

On his very first day as leader, he took some time to union-bait, telling labour to “get a grip.” A populist move, I suspect, and a sign that he’s going to be way, way more aggressive than John Tory.

Add to that the fact that Hudak is actually a sitting MPP (John Tory was only briefly a member of provincial parliament) and we’re going to see a lot more fireworks this fall.

I’m worried that Hudak’s meanness is going to strike a chord with voters, the same way Harris’ callous indifference did in 1995. Then, cash-strapped voters feeling the pinch of a recession voted for tough love. It’s a common phenomenon that during times of economic uncertainty or foreign wars, we tend to vote based on our fears rather than our hopes. Hudak will almost certainly be playing to our fears and with no end to this financial mess, he could have found the ideal era for his nastiness. Yikes.

Probably the scariest moment of the weekend came with Frank Klees’ concession speech. The second place finisher (who represents the religious nutters of the party) told supporters that Hudak wouldn’t dare cut him off if he went over his allotted time because, “I think he might need me along the way.”

I think he’s right. All rightwing parties in Canada are beholden to religious and social conservatives, who represent between a third and a half of most memberships. The exception, of course, was the old Reform and Alliance parties, the great bulk of whose members were hardliners and zealots.

It’s a potent combination: a slash-and-burn Harris cutout who must throw red meat to the creepy religious bigots in order to unify the party. And if Klees’ comments are any indication, abolishing the human rights tribunals isn’t enough — it’s just a start.