Why Tim Hudak isn't walking away with the Ontario election

An aging Ontario provincial Liberal government plagued by political scandals would seem ripe for the taking, so why has Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak found it so difficult to take the lead in the election and run with it?

'It should have been a clear Conservative victory,' says political science professor

Some have questioned whether Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak lacks the personal appeal to connect with voters, but political observers say the Tory leader has faced other campaign challenges linked to his platform. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

An aging Ontario provincial Liberal government plagued with a series of political scandals would seem ripe for the taking, especially if one adheres to the old political adage that governments are defeated and not elected. 

Yet, with only a day to go in Thursday's Ontario election campaign, and in spite of all that Liberal political baggage, polls suggest a tight race between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives — leading some to wonder why Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has found it so difficult to take the lead and run with it.

"This was the [Progressive] Conservatives' turn to win and they blew it," said Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. "It should have been a clear Conservative victory."

Thursday's winner is still anyone's guess, and Hudak has as good a chance as Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne to form the next government, whether it be a minority or majority (although most observers predict either a Liberal or PC minority). Much may also depend on NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's ability to siphon off Liberal votes.

And while some have questioned whether Hudak lacks the personal appeal to connect with voters, political observers say the Tory leader has faced other campaign challenges.

"When you look over time, parties in governments normally last two terms," Kay said. "The Liberals have basically had three and then you throw all the scandals on top of that. My sense is that all the Conservatives had to do was basically stand aside."

Instead, Hudak came out strong early on in the campaign, promising to create one million jobs over eight years and cut the public sector workforce by 100,000.

'Put a big target on him'

It was a bold move, according to some political observers, and defined Hudak early on, for better or for worse. 

"I think that it put a big target on him in a sense of saying, 'Can you really create a million jobs over eight years?'" said Cameron Anderson, an assistant political science professor at Western University. "And the 100,000 job cuts to the public sector — what does that say about him and his ideological positioning and policy proposals more generally?"

And that may have caused great caution among some who felt, "We've seen this before, 15, 20 years ago and we didn't like how it worked out with [PC premier] Mike Harris," Anderson said.

"I think it may be too fresh for some folks that this bold policy initiative is out there."

Kay added that in a campaign where no proposal really resonated, the public sector job cuts stood out. And while it may have support from the party faithful, more people oppose the plan.

For example, Wynne's pension plan proposal barely gets a mention, Kay said, adding that Horwath has also failed to make a dent with her policies.

"Horwath, who in the polls at the beginning and maybe even now, is still the most liked, not necessarily [considered] the best premier, but the most likeable figures of the leaders. But she was not able to translate that into issues that could resonate with the public."

Hudak was also put on the defensive with his "Million Jobs" plan, as economists began questioning his numbers and math. 

1 million jobs 'difficult to comprehend'

Bernie Morton, the former campaign manager of John Tory's bid to become premier in 2007, said the idea behind the proposal was also a difficult one to communicate to voters.

"The challenge for Mr. Hudak has been presenting a safe and reliable change. And things like the million jobs plan was difficult to message, it was difficult for people to comprehend. And when they start questioning the alternative, the change that is being presented, then they start thinking about, well, do we feel comfortable with that unknown change? And that's really why we’re in this limbo."

He said John Tory faced a similar problem with his proposal to fund faith-based schools, which also was a difficult proposal to communicate to voters.

"It was something that was not representative of change," he said. "And if you’re having to explain in a difficult way what that change actually looks like, then the electorate tends to stand back and say, 'Well we don’t get it.'"

Scandals may not have effect Tories hoped

Meanwhile, the one political card that the Tories hoped would move voters their way may not have had the effect they had hoped. 

Wynne has had a challenging time trying to distance herself from the scandals of the Dalton McGuinty regime, considering she was part of his cabinet. Both Hudak and Horwath attacked Wynne over the the billion-dollar gas plant scandal, with the NDP leader pointedly scolding Wynne that she "had a choice when you were going to sign off on those gas plant documents."

But whether it be controversies over the gas plant scandal, the billion dollars wasted on eHealth or the overspending and financial irregularities of the province's air ambulance service, the scandals may not have been enough, on their own, to spur voters to flee the Liberals. 

"There were a number of people who I’m sure were influenced by the scandal, but they abandoned the Liberals some time ago and frankly probably before the election campaign began," Kay said.

Voter cynicism about government inefficiency and waste may have immunized the Liberals from the backlash some might expect, he added.

And when it comes to the power plant, Kay said, "It’s easier to relate to a $15 glass of orange juice than it is to a billion-dollar overspending of an unnecessary power project."

"People can’t relate to a billion dollars. They understand when Bev Oda is wasting orange juice at a fancy London hotel. They can relate to [Senator] Mike Duffy improperly collecting money for two residences."

But Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates, said he believes voters are concerned about the scandals but are also leery of some of Hudak's proposals.

"What I see is a genuinely flummoxed part of the electorate that simply can't choose between the rock and the hard place … do you want to have this government — that probably should be in the penalty box for all the things that have happened — back in power again. Or do you really like this almost scorched-earth type of anti-government model that Mr. Hudak is proposing."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.