Ontario PCs are divided and dispirited. So what now?

Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are looking once again for a new leader and a new direction, Robert Fisher writes.

Party has long road back from recent election loss

Tim Hudak led the Ontario Progressive Conservatives through two provincial elections during his time as leader. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

As the Ontario Legislature re-convenes later this morning for the first post-election question period of the new session, Kathleen Wynne will walk into the House a more confident party leader — having won her coveted majority government.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath will ask questions of the government while lacking the balance of power clout she enjoyed and used to her advantage before she forced last month’s election.

And, sitting to her right — the Conservatives: a divided and dispirited group of MPPs — looking once again for a new leader and, a new future direction. But, with a successful past.

They are members of a party of political giants: Leslie Frost, John Robarts, Bill Davis and Mike Harris.

But, also a party of Frank Miller, Larry Grossman, John Tory and most recently Tim Hudak — a group that didn't enjoy political success.

So, based on the results of the election — a second place finish and 4th consecutive election loss — where does Ontario's Conservative party go now?

They've tried the 'red' Tory route under John Tory and failed and returned to their hard 'right' route under Hudak and failed.

And if you believe newly elected interim party leader Jim Wilson, the May result was self-inflicted.

"I think we clearly shot ourselves in the foot in the last election and we’ve got to stop doing that."

The MPP for the riding of Simcoe-Grey also bluntly suggested the party had to stop "fighting" with Ontarians, something he says they've done for a decade.

Presumed leadership candidate, Ottawa's Lisa MacLeod has also weighed in with the observation that the party's "tone had hurt" in the campaign.

And while unsaid, she was presumably talking about the Hudak Million Jobs plan that included — by surprise apparently to his caucus — 100,000 job cuts in the public sector.

MacLeod’s and Wilson’s straight talk in public and not behind closed doors is refreshing. But, it also underscores what lies ahead for the Conservatives as they regroup and rebuild.

The approach to the future is what some Conservatives are calling "fresh leadership with a fresh approach."

But, who best is equipped to take on that task?

First into the as yet-to-be-called leadership race is Christine Elliot, the MPP for Whitby-Oshawa. The widow of federal Finance minister Jim Flaherty, Elliot is soft-spoken. But a lot tougher, even by her own admission, than she looks.

She is liked and respected within the party and the PC caucus and that respect can be found, even on the Liberal side of the House.

She lost to Hudak in 2009. But the Tories appear more ready than ever to elect a female leader.

Ottawa's Lisa MacLeod is still flirting with the idea of running. But most Conservatives I’ve talked to suggest she will be a candidate.

She is not soft-spoken and, is as tough as she looks, taking on the role of political attack dog when Hudak had to appear to be a premier-in-waiting and seemingly enjoying the role.

But that role got her into trouble.

Federal saviour?

MacLeod and, Hudak are still the subject of a lawsuit launched by Kathleen Wynne over comments the two Tories made, in directly linking the premier, to the gas plants scandal.

But there will be other members of the Queen’s Park caucus who will step forward and run, just as there may well be federal Conservatives in Ottawa who believe they’ve got what it takes to rebuild the party, provincially.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt is rumoured to be considering a run for leader of the Progressive Conservatives. (Canadian Press)

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, the MP for Halton is one name that automatically surfaces.

No shrinking violet she, Raitt is well liked and respected and is said to be "looking" at a run. But it is far from certain, even as the pressure mounts with an online "Draft Lisa" movement.

There is a similar campaign for John Baird. But would the globe-trotting Foreign Affairs minister really want to give up Moscow for Mattawa, or Cologne for Cornwall?

Still, he brings a wealth of federal and provincial experience to the debate — having been a leading member of the Harris cabinet — though that might still serve to work against him.

Baird's former provincial and, now federal cabinet colleague Tony Clement, is the man to watch, federally.

I'm told by PC party sources he has been in their words "inundated" with calls and emails from Tories wanting him consider a return to Queen's Park.

Clement knows — a much as he may dream of it — that he'll never be prime minister.

But, the prestige of being a federal cabinet minister with that federal MP's pension when his days on the Hill are over is much more attractive now and into the future, than taking on the leadership of his provincial party.

 And that may be the same consideration for other federal Conservatives.

Over the weekend reports surfaced in both the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail that a so-called "outsider" might be coaxed to enter the race.

Rod Phillips, now chair of Postmedia and the newly-named chair of Toronto’s CivicAction Alliance, is said to be "actively considering" a run.

Phillips, an outstanding communicator, has an impressive resume inside and outside politics including a stint as a senior executive at Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

But, as the man behind an OLG plan to cut funding to the all-important horse-racing industry, Phillips may be a hard sell in rural Ontario — the Tory heartland.

And, as far as can be determined, he’s never sought elected office.

Phillips and others may want to get a look at the books before finally deciding.

At a reported $8 million in debt, whoever wins will have to find a strategy to get back to black. And, it will be easier said than done.

After consecutive losses and, up against, for now and perhaps well into the future, a popular Kathleen Wynne with a lot of political capital — it’ll be hard for the Tories to wipe out their debt quickly with the money flowing to the Liberals.

Timing is key

Then, there is the question of the timing of the leadership race.

Over the weekend, party officials met to address the timing issue and, decided not to rush into a leadership contest without first "consulting" with party members.

Some Conservatives have suggested to me that this is not the time to "panic" over the leadership-direction issue — that with four years until the next election, there is plenty of time to find a leader and an agenda.

But, others say just the opposite. That — the reality of current election cycles is that the Tories have just two years to "get their act together," just as Wynne has the same time to make all the tough decisions and then prepare for her re-election effort.

Many Conservatives remember well Mike Harris’s first election in 1990 when he, figuratively speaking, went from the CNE Coliseum and the winner’s applause to a campaign bus that was quickly dubbed "the bus from Hell."

That first campaign came too quickly for Harris, and his party and the "tax fighter" label never caught on.

But by 1995 Harris was ready with his "Common Sense Revolution" and blew away his competition in the first of his two back-to-back majority governments.

So, Tories from those days are telling their party to get the election of a new leader out of the way "sooner rather than later."

They also say that person really has only two years to find his or, her way to a new approach, so that it can be sold, like the "Common Sense Revolution," to voters before the next provincial election and, not on the doorstep as it was last month.

But, as this race unfolds and whenever that is, there is the reality of an old post-election Tory button that reads: "Second Sucks."

The job of Conservative leader clearly lacks the cachet of the past and comes with all the problems of the future.

A difficult road lies ahead — a road some Tories privately suggest may take two or even, as some in the party have suggested, three elections to navigate.

Then again, who really would have predicted that Wynne — with all the political baggage she inherited as Liberal leader and premier — would not only win the provincial election but secure a majority?

About the Author

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.


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