In the last Ontario provincial election, the polls were wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, either.
In the last Ontario provincial election, the polls were wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, either. Not since the Chicago Tribune famously printed their “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline had the experts been so wrong. Instead of winning by a projected landslide, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives lost seats and were reduced to a mostly rural rump in the provincial legislature. Even my own riding of Durham – which I joked would elect a fire hydrant to Queen’s Park if you painted it Tory blue – sent its first Liberal member to Toronto since 1943.
But there was one number in all the polling that was, in retrospect, very telling. During the debate – which everyone agreed PC leader Tim Hudak had won – Hudak’s personal likeability went down. In other words, while people thought he’d made solid points, the more they saw of him, and the more they heard his message, the less they liked him.
Part of that was Hudak’s doing. Up close, with no one else around, Hudak can be bright and friendly and relaxed. With an audience, he gives off a creepy, tense, used-car salesman vibe. But the PCs failure in that election wasn’t really about Hudak’s persona – it went deeper than that. Its roots go back more than 20 years.
In 1995, the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris were elected thanks to the “Common Sense Revolution,” a platform of tax cuts, welfare reforms and a plan to balance the Budget in response to what people saw as the failed policies of the NDP government under Bob Rae.
The “CSR” didn’t happen overnight. From 1990 to 1994, Harris and PC strategists like Tom Long, David Lindsay and Leslie Noble had been crisscrossing the province listening to the grassroots members of the party, looking for common threads of dissatisfaction and disappointment with the Rae government. The document came together quickly, but the research and planning behind the CSR was years in the making.
One of the people elected as part of that 1995 Harris government was a 27-year old wunderkind from Fort Erie named Tim Hudak. Hudak continued to represent Niagara under new leaders Ernie Eves and John Tory before he finally took a crack at party leadership himself in 2009.
In both elections as PC leader, Hudak ran – and lost – on a platform similar to the CSR: lower taxes, reduced government services and balanced budgets. In the 2014 election, though, the PCs were particularly bold in their promises to fire 100,000 public employees while cutting taxes which, they claimed, would create one million new jobs.
Both were straight out of the CSR. The mantra “tax cuts create jobs” permeated every Mike Harris speech of the 1990s (I should know – I wrote a few of them) and the notion that PCs are elected to “fix government, not be the government” was also a core belief of the Harris Conservatives.
These ideas, though, were originally developed over time and in consultation with the core members of the PC party. The PC Party Mike Harris inherited in 1990 wasn’t a right-wing party like it is today – it had many members who were Bill Davis Tories: moderate fiscal conservatives and social liberals. Harris pushed those people out and prodded the rest to accept the message until the PC Party became a rock-ribbed Conservative party in his own image. The PCs became a necessary foil to the Rae NDP and – whether you agreed with their ideas or not – at least proposed a solution to the recession of the early 1990s.
Hudak’s problem – and the PC party’s problem – is that their political thinking hasn’t evolved since then. Part of the reason for this lies in the ridings PCs represent. Rural Ontario has never really recovered from the economic downturn of the early 90s. Small manufacturing has been fleeing to low-wage, low regulation economies like China for years. The competition from larger, well-subsidized U.S. farms in the agrifood sector is immense. Kids are moving out of rural towns and into the big cities. And taxes – particularly municipal taxes – seem rather high for the quality of services provided.
There’s been a lot of dissatisfaction in rural Ontario for decades now – which is understandable – but tax and service cuts won’t magically bring business back to those places. All that would happen is money would no longer be invested anywhere – including Ontario’s cities, which need billions in infrastructure spending as they grow. Farmers do feed cities, but if cities become less economically competitive, all of Ontario suffers.
The eternal opposition
Modern Conservatism – in Canada and the U.S. – has fallen into the trap of defining itself by what it opposes. It’s against taxes. Against big government. Against gay marriage. This means that the left is always setting the agenda, and the right is always reacting in opposition. In some cases – as with gay rights – long after the issue has mainstream support and everyone but the most die-hard social conservatives have moved on.
What voters are left with is – in Ontario at least – a party that seems to be filled with angry, oppositional, rural old white guys with nothing positive to say about anything. That’s too bad, because rural Ontario – indeed all of Ontario – needs a vibrant Conservative party with something positive to offer the voters of 2014.
And that’s the problem with the Ontario PC party – it has spent so much time telling voters what it opposes, it no longer knows what it stands for. What the party needs to do is take a long hard look at its core values, and decide how to present those in a positive way. Are they for “families?” What does that mean, in a positive sense? How would a Conservative government meaningfully address joblessness in rural Ontario caused by a changing global economy?
For starters, it would have to admit that the problem isn’t caused by “tax and spend Liberals,” as they like to complain, but by economic forces outside Ontario. They’d have to take a long, hard, intellectually honest look at the problems facing Ontarians, talk to voters and do the legwork they did in 1990 when they developed the CSR. They only way to win back voters is to come up with new, relevant Conservative policies that speak to the problems facing Ontarians in 2014 – not going backwards to the glory days of 1995.
It’s going to take a leader with the courage to ask the right questions (pun intended) for the Ontario PC Party to get its mojo back. They need someone young, and charismatic and smart to bring them back out of the political wilderness. If it takes the easy way out – and simply chooses a leader spouting a political philosophy voters have rejected for the last decade – the PC party will continue to find itself less and less relevant.