Tim Hudak, 41 and a former Ontario cabinet minister, was recently elected the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Endorsed by former Premier Mike Harris, in my mind the most evil and divisive political leader in Canada’s history, Hudak seems intent on regaining power for the party by resurrecting the same tactics that so divided so many Ontarians during Harris’s rule. Spouting catch phrases such as ‘middle class values,’ and suggesting that he would cut up public sector contracts because they are too rich, Hudak, who has never held a job outside of politics, seems to assume that there is still an appetite amongst the electorate for the politics of disenfranchisement and division, politics that play to the worst of human nature.
In the leadup to the convention, the general wisdom was that centrists such as Christine Elliot could never lead the party back to power, being too closely allied in many ways with the policies of the existing Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty. And therein lies the problem with politicians today - if the only reason to choose Hudak is to increase the chance of returning to power, doesn’t that bespeak a moral vacuum? I would argue, of course, that this bald grasping for power for power’s sake is endemic in our system today, not limited to the Conservative Party by any means.
Margaret Wente, with who I rarely agree, has an interesting column in today’s Globe and Mail that examines the politics and strategy of Mr. Hudak. I have taken the liberty of reprinting it below:
Only a political junkie could care about the fate of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party - a bunch of old white guys so lost in the woods they make Stephen Harper's crowd look enlightened.
To bring you up to date, they just had a leadership race. Not one of the candidates addressed the economic tsunami that will define the province for years to come. Instead, the front-runner chose to fan the culture wars by lustily attacking Ontario's Human Rights Commission. The small-town base applauded. Anyone else might ask: Who cares about the culture wars when the economic heartland of Canada is being disembowelled?
The election of Tim Hudak as leader of the Official Opposition is a rare piece of good news for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Mr. Hudak has styled himself as the reincarnation of Mike Harris, a name that evokes fear and loathing among most of the province's voters. People remember Mr. Harris as a dose of Castor oil - necessary, but deeply unpleasant. It is not an experience they'd care to repeat.
Nonetheless, Mr. Hudak thinks that old-time medicine might go down well again. He stands for "hard-working Ontarians" and "middle-class families," while the McGuinty Liberals stand for "massive tax grab."
By narrowing their base, the Conservatives took exactly the wrong message from their previous leader's failure to make an impact. John Tory was a Red Tory with bad timing. He opposed a moderate premier in good times. Mr. McGuinty projects an image as a dull but honest guy, and his government has generally avoided major screw-ups. The economy was booming, and voters saw no reason to rock the boat. Mr. Tory's political failure was widely blamed on his nice-guyness, along with his unpopular support for private-school funding. But it was prosperity that did him in.
Mr. Tory has little love for his successor, who campaigned for his job the entire time he had it. Mr. Hudak, 41, is nothing if not ambitious. He's been a career politician since he was first elected at 27 - not necessarily a plus, in my view. At least Mr. Harris spent some time as a golf pro.
In public, Mr. Hudak is a bit robotic - bright, glib and highly scripted by his band of Harrisites. His wife, Deb Hutton, was chief of staff in the Harris government. He is not unpersonable, but he's not personable, either. He has a habit of baring his teeth in an alarmingly phony smile, as if he's about to devour Little Red Riding Hood. Whether he's capable of substance is not known.
I'm not a fan of Mr. McGuinty's wishy-washy nanny-statish liberalism. But he is geekily enthusiastic about ideas, even though a lot of them are half-baked. He thinks seriously about forging a prosperous postindustrial model for Ontario. He surely knows that, before the next election in 2011, the province will be grappling with an unemployment rate of at least 10 per cent and even more horrendous deficits than it has now. He'll have to raise taxes and cut spending. So will anyone else who winds up in the job.
The reason to bother with Mr. Hudak is that he may well be premier one day - if not next time, then the time after that. All governments get long in the tooth, and this one is well into its second term. It is also sailing into a perfect storm not of its own making. If people get mad enough, they'll vote for Donald Duck.
That alone may be enough to get Mr. Hudak elected. But if he's halfway smart, he'll realize that the 5,600 diehards who elected him as leader are the party's past. They are the province's past, too. Ontario's future won't be forged in the aging, fading, small white towns like the one he grew up in. It will be forged in the vibrant knowledge belt of Southern Ontario, and in multiethnic, creative, culturally liberal Toronto. My advice to Mr. Hudak is to work the next Pride parade. It might broaden his horizons. It might even loosen him up.