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A Tory for the Ontario Tories

Monday, September 27, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

The political landscape in Ontario just got a lot more complicated. Last weekend’s election of John Tory -- a former cable executive, former Canadian Football League Commissioner and lifelong party backroom boy -- as leader of the Ontario PCs stands to have significant impact on all three parties represented at Queen’s Park.

Perhaps because he has only recently emerged from the shadows, John Tory remains a bit of a political enigma. He admitted to The Toronto Star in 2003 that “I could have just as easily been a Liberal” (although that may have necessitated a name change). Indeed, his campaign for the Toronto mayoralty was heavily populated by Liberals (admittedly, strange bedfellows were a key feature of that election, as his opponents were picking up support from across the political spectrum as well). His two opponents, Jim Flaherty and Frank Klees, took great pains to paint Tory as a Liberal in disguise. “Quite frankly, that policy statement could have been written by Dalton McGuinty,” quipped Klees during one leadership debate.

In his speech to convention delegates, however, Tory betrayed little uncertainty about where he stood. “I have been a conservative for every day of my political life. I am a conservative because I believe in balanced budgets. To me there is no greater principle of conservatism than this [Cough… Ernie Eves]. I am a conservative because I believe we must cut taxes for people and for businesses whenever we can. I am a conservative because I believe government must respect taxpayers and their hard earned money. Paying more and getting less is just not acceptable. I am a conservative because I want to take the savings from better government and invest them in people, all people, but especially those who need help through no fault of their own. I am a conservative because I believe government simply cannot afford to waste one thin dime. I am a conservative because I will do what I say I will do. Mike Harris raised the bar for all politicians when he looked taxpayers in the eye, told them what he would do as premier, and then went out and did it.”

Yet, Tory stubbornly insisted on using the party’s full name (unlike Flaherty and Eves, who consistently omitted the word “progressive”). “Together, let's choose a future of bold progressive steps and proud conservative decisions… Our party should be proud of our many accomplishments. But somehow, over the years, we lost our connection with Ontario voters and even some of our own members. We must reconnect with our membership and work to broaden the base of support by reaching out to those who have left or not felt included in the past, by conducting targeted outreach campaigns in northern Ontario and urban centres, among women, newer Canadians, and young people.”

Tory must be hoping that “those who have not felt included” have a short memory -- not just about the actions of the Harris and Eves governments, but about positions that Tory himself has taken. Otherwise, the planned outreached campaigns have little chance of success. I’d recommend that anyone tempted by Tory’s soothing words take a look at his support for workfare (which he calls “one of the main accomplishments of the Common Sense Revolution”), support for “independent schools” (which was only “a divisive issue because of the way it was introduced without consultation”), and health care privatization (he says he will “support further involvement in health care by private sector providers where they can provide better service at the same cost or the same service at a lower cost.”).

Still, the transfer of leadership presents the McGuinty Liberals with a dilemma. For now, they seem to be using a range of different strategies, to see which one seems to resonate with voters. It’ll be harder for them to steal NDP votes by painting the Tory-led Tories as the scary monsters who wreaked havoc on Ontario for nine years, since he was not officially part of that government. That hasn’t stopped them from trying so far, with buttons featuring Harris, Eves and Tory along with the words “The Tradition Continues”. As well, Warren Kinsella, who helped to run Tory’s campaign for mayor, is now touting a negative campaign that features engraved silver spoons and portrays John Tory as Richie Rich.

If calling him scary or pointing out his wealth doesn’t work, the Liberals will try to paint him as a media creation with only a vague idea of what he hopes to accomplish. Last week, for example, one Liberal cabinet minister called Tory “the most overrated politician in Ontario.” And, another anonymous Liberal source told The Star that “We can't wait to get his wishy-washy milquetoast style in the Legislature.”

Ultimately, I suspect that Tory’s success or failure will come down to a question of public perceptions, rather than any real changes in policy. As Tory says, “It doesn't mean turning our backs on our history or our principles at all. It just means you can put a new face forward.” In other words, we can expect to see the Ontario PCs advocating the Common Sense Revolution with a big happy face sticker slapped over top of it. Now, that really DOES sound like Dalton McGuinty.


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