TORONTO — The race for the Ontario Tory leadership kicked off in earnest Wednesday, with deputy party leader Christine Elliott launching her bid, a decision she said her late husband, former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, would have supported.
Elliott became the first candidate in the running to succeed Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who is stepping down following the party’s crushing electoral defeat earlier this month.
It marks her second attempt to lead the party — she finished third when Hudak won the Tory leadership race in 2009 — and she said Wednesday that Flaherty wanted to see her succeed.
“I can tell you that it’s something that Jim always wanted me to do,” she said. “He always wanted me to move forward in whatever capacity presented itself and I feel sure that he would have been happy with my decision.”
Elliott entered politics in 2006, winning a byelection in Whitby, east of Toronto, when Flaherty vacated the seat to run federally. No byelection has yet been called to fill the seat federally since Flaherty died in April.
Elliott said Wednesday that “there’s no question” she had an opportunity to consider running federally, but her heart is in provincial politics.
Flaherty himself twice tried to lead the Ontario Tories, but both his bids in 2002 and 2004 failed.
Hudak is vacating the post July 2, when the legislature resumes, after his party lost nine seats in the June 12 provincial election and voters handed the Liberals a majority government. The party will appoint an interim leader who will serve until a new one is chosen, but no date has been set for a convention.
Elliott acknowledged “a certain degree of frustration” in her party about the loss and vowed to rebuild. She returned several times during her press conference Wednesday to the theme of listening to everyone, as she vowed to rebuild.
“I think that’s something that has been underestimated,” she said.
Many Tory members of the provincial legislature had complained they were not told about the party’s election pledge to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs until hours before Hudak announced it in the first week of the campaign.
The promise dominated the headlines for weeks and prompted public-sector unions to launch unprecedented anti-Tory campaigns, including a series of attack ads that saturated TV and radio.
“I had a good relationship with (the central campaign), but I think that there were some people that feel that they were left out and I think that that’s not something that I want to do,” Elliott said.
The next provincial election may be four years away, but it’s not a very long time, considering the amount of work that has to be done, Elliott said.
“We have a huge amount of work to do,” she said.
“We need to go back and rebuild our party from the ground up. And it starts by listening to all of our members and by listening to all Ontarians. We simply need to take our party in a new way forward.”
While calling her overarching vision a simple one, Elliott noted that it wouldn’t be easy to execute.
“It’s going to take experienced leadership,” she said. “I believe, in fact, I know, that I am ready to provide that experienced leadership.”
The mother of three said her experience as a lawyer, entrepreneur and a parent taught her to listen to others.
“As leader, I’ll re-engage with our grassroots supporters and those that share our Progressive Conservative values by asking these questions — what is your vision for a prosperous Ontario and what can we do together to get us there,” she said.
Other names that have been floated as potential leadership contenders are Tory labour critic Monte McNaughton, Tory energy critic Lisa MacLeod, Tory finance critic Vic Fedeli and party president Richard Ciano.