Tim Hudak knows best

Are voters ready for Tim Hudak’s gamble?

By targeting jobs, the PC leader has embraced the stern-father role. Is that what Ontarians want?

by
Nathan Denette/CP

Nathan Denette/CP

This time, there will be no confusion. When Ontarians—or, more accurately, the 50 per cent or so of eligible voters who will actually budge from their Barcaloungers—head to the polls on June 12, they won’t wonder who Tim Hudak is, or what he stands for. The Progressive Conservative leader has staked his future on a campaign vowing to slash billions in spending to balance the provincial budget and remove 100,000 workers from the public payroll, should he be elected. And he’s made a single, overarching promise that all the tough love and tax cuts will spur an economic rebound that will create a million new private sector jobs over the next eight years. “I think our campaign is crystal clear. What we need right now is someone who is going to think about job creation, day in, day out,” Hudak says between sips of pineapple juice in a Toronto restaurant. “It’s not going to be easy. There are going to be sacrifices, but once you get through it, there are going to be benefits for all of us.”

Those advantages, it’s fair to say, are what he has been trying his hardest to peddle to voters since the writ dropped in early May. Everywhere the 47-year-old goes, he stands before a large blue backdrop emblazoned with his grammar- and punctuation-be-damned campaign slogan, “Million Jobs Plan: Ontario. Working. Better.” It’s also painted on the side of his big blue bus, the one Tory staffers have dubbed “the Million Jobs Express” but reporters exult in calling “the Fired Truck.” It’s really the only theme in his campaign ads, which feature happy children, wistful out-of-work Ontarians and clips of Hudak thundering away about the need to do better.

But his opponents, the media, and those members of the public who are actually paying attention to the spring election remain stubbornly focused on the other side of the equation. His pledge to trim the public service back to 2009 staffing levels—all the while protecting the jobs of doctors, nurses and police officers—has raised fears of everything from larger school classes to cuts to basic services such as fire protection and water treatment. (The Ontario Federation of Labour has been stoking the anxiety by estimating the impact on individual municipalities—7,116 job losses for London, 2,457 in Barrie, 137 in Hawkesbury, etc.) Moreover, the math underpinning Hudak’s million-jobs promise has come under attack from a number of independent economists who say the Tories have overestimated the effects of their plan by six to eight times.

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Hudak’s decision to embrace the stern-dad role was the product of much soul-searching. In 2011, his first kick at the electoral can, he went into the campaign carrying a big lead in the polls, only to see it ebb away as voters failed to warm to him or his “Changebook” stuffed with centrist promises. Where the old policies weren’t coherent, comprehensive, or even Conservative enough, says Hudak, the new ones come “straight from the gut,” reinforced by consultations with average Ontarians and right-wing pundits and politicians in Alberta, B.C., and the United States. “I’m having a hell of a lot more fun, because I’m fighting for something I believe in, and standing on principle,” he says.

However, a week away from election day, it’s still difficult to say whether the strategy is working. Opinion polls suggest the race remains tight, with another minority government the most likely outcome. While Ontarians are heartily sick of the ruling Liberals and Premier Kathleen Wynne—almost 70 per cent say it’s time for a change—they remain leery of the alternative, with 63 per cent of voters disapproving of Hudak and what he stands for.

The Progressive Conservatives, having lost the last two very winnable elections under former leader John Tory and then Hudak, have reverted to the Mike Harris playbook of the mid-1990s. Hudak’s rebooted vision of smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation isn’t designed to appeal to the broader public, but rather motivate bedrock Conservatives to come out and vote in an election where the Liberals and the NDP aren’t giving their own partisans much to be excited about. It’s a referendum on jobs—and the first one on the line is Tim Hudak’s.

It’s worth noting that the basement rec room of the house Hudak shares with his wife, Deb Hutton, and their two young daughters, Miller and Maitland, near Welland, Ont., is entirely devoted to the 1980s. There’s an Atari game console, a full-sized arcade version of Space Invaders and, alongside the dart board and pool table, stacks of red milk crates filled with vintage vinyl records. A Platinum Blonde album occupies a place of pride up on the wall, as does one by Billy Idol, and one by Canadian heavy metal act Helix. (The lead singer hails from the same small Ontario town as Hutton.) There are also posters of various WWF wrestlers.

Hudak has nursed a soft spot for professional grappling since his father took him as a young kid, across the Niagara River from their hometown of Fort Erie, to the Buffalo auditorium to watch the Iron Sheik battle Blackjack Mulligan. Later, as an economics student at Western University, pictures of beefy men in spandex decorated his dorm room. It is hard to fathom, and even harder to reconcile with his passion for ’80s alternative bands such as the Smiths and Talking Heads. When Hudak reveals he has been listening to leftist punk-folk icon Billy Bragg on the campaign trail, you quickly give up trying.

Hudak didn’t have a political upbringing. His maternal grandfather was a union activist and a committed socialist, but his parents, Pat and Anne Marie, both teachers, mostly kept their views to themselves. He guesses they voted Liberal.

His own embrace of conservatism was gradual. While studying on a full scholarship at Western, Hudak found himself naturally leaning to the Tory point of view on issues such as free trade. The master’s in economics he pursued at the University of Washington only solidified his beliefs. Back in Canada for the 1993 federal election, he volunteered for the PC standard-bearer in his hometown, a car dealer named Bradd Wilson. “Our views were very much alike,” says Wilson. “Even at that age, he had a vision of where the country should be going and how to get it there, and he wasn’t shy about sharing it.” The campaign was a disaster for the Tories, who were reduced to two seats, but Hudak proved a tireless worker, even for a hopeless cause.

Two years later, after stints working as a customs officer at the Fort Erie crossing, and a job helping to set up Wal-Mart stores across the country, he captured the provincial PC nomination for the riding of Niagara South. Up against an NDP cabinet minister and a well-known local Liberal, few gave the 27-year-old much of a chance. John Baird, then also a young PC candidate, now Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, recalls first meeting Hudak at a party training session. “He told me where he was running and I remember thinking, ‘Guess I’ll never see him again.’ ” On election night, Hudak surprised even himself by winning by more than 1,000 votes on the back of a Mike Harris majority.

At Queen’s Park, he quickly rose through the party ranks, first garnering attention as a noisy defender of government policies, then as an effective parliamentary assistant to two health ministers. When Harris won a second mandate in 1999, Hudak, whose riding hugs the U.S. border, found himself named minister of northern development and mines. He later served as both minister of tourism and minister of consumer and business affairs.

Hudak met his wife, a former senior adviser to premier Harris, at the legislature. (He says he admired her for years, but it appears to have been silently and from afar. The relationship never blossomed until after she left for a private sector job, and Hutton was the one who asked him out.) He’s been a politician for 19 years and counting, and it’s the only career he has ever really had.

Those who know Hudak well describe him as fun-loving and tout his “regular-guy” credentials. He likes beer and chicken wings, is a fan of the Boston Bruins, and was for many years a Buffalo Bills season’s ticket-holder. He takes a frat-boy delight in pranks and bestowing nicknames on his staff and opponents. The best dates back to the last campaign, when the Liberal operative who tailed him around fell into a fountain and earned the sobriquet “Puddles.”

Yet almost every story ever written about Hudak betrays a certain surprise that he can be personable off-camera. During the 2011 campaign, facing off against the charisma-deficient Dalton McGuinty, Hudak came across as so wooden, he might as well have had roots. This time, freed from formal speeches and riffing on just one theme, he seems happier, but not necessarily less awkward. At one campaign stop last week, he led a Q&A with supporters that was so heavy on first names and shoulder chucks, it brought to mind Jerry Springer. He has a tendency to stand with his hands cupped in front of his genitals as though he’s awaiting a penalty kick. And, as Paul Wells recently noted in these pages, Hudak seems to have a rare talent for staring contests, locking eyes while answering questions and failing to blink for uncomfortably long periods. “He doesn’t really have any presence; people don’t notice him when he enters the room,” laments one former adviser. “Campaigning has always been a struggle for him.”

Furthermore, the polls suggest that Hudak’s appeal, rather than growing, has actually narrowed. In the honeymoon period after he took over as party leader in 2009, he did relatively well with female voters, high-income earners and new Canadians. But after the 2011 debacle, his base shrank back to the Conservative hard core: older, white, less-educated men.

“There’s no evidence he’s making inroads with those accessible, but not onside, voters yet,” says Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research, “and his campaign has the same type of populist, anti-intellectual feel as [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford’s.”

Matters certainly haven’t been helped by the rocky start to this Hudak campaign. The first days were dominated by organizational flubs: the Tory leader denouncing “corporate welfare” while touring businesses that depend on government subsidies, and getting kicked off the Toronto subway after he and his entourage ran afoul of its long-standing “no politicking” rule. Then came the controversies over job cuts, a promised wage freeze—which provoked the union representing provincial police to enter the fray—and his shaky math. At times, it has been difficult to detect any urgency in his efforts. Hudak’s schedule of public events has been kept conspicuously light. Last week, during a daylong, two-stop swing through his riding, his handlers kept the media amused by taking them to see Niagara Falls and on a visit to a winery.

John Baird, a former colleague and close friend, calls the job of leader of the Opposition in Ontario the toughest in Canadian politics, because voters are mostly preoccupied with the federal or local spheres. But he says Hudak has grown into the role, and his “courage” will eventually resonate with the public. “He’s not afraid to take the path less travelled,” says Baird.

Entering the final stretch, it appears Hudak is also trying hard to flog that notion. On the eve of this week’s provincial leadership debate, the Tories released a new ad, simply titled “The Truth.” It has Hudak looking directly into the camera and delivering the hard sell over a soundtrack of swelling violins and visuals of shuttered factories. “Most politicians tell you what they think you want to hear,” he says. “I could do the same. I could tell you our debt is nothing to worry about and we can spend forever. I could tell you that if we do nothing, the jobs we’ve lost will come back on their own. Or I could be honest with you.”

During Tuesday’s leadership debate, Hudak was relaxed and confident, attacking his opponents just enough to make his point, but stopping short of the angry-taxpayer persona that has alienated him from more moderate voters. Even his most controversial campaign pledge, cutting 100,000 public sector workers, was cast as a program that wouldn’t put many people out of work, since most of the cuts would come through attrition. He vowed to resign if he didn’t deliver on all his campaign promises.

But there’s been a conspicuous softening of the message, too. Recently, Hudak has been talking about improving special education in schools, job opportunities for the disabled and front-line health services. The latter is a topic informed by personal experience. His eldest daughter, Miller, has had health challenges since birth, and fell critically ill during the 2011 campaign. “I’ve seen how hard people work in our system, and I thank God that we have it,” he told Maclean’s. “That’s why I get so frustrated when I see money being wasted—going to gas-plant scandals or middle management. We can do a hell of a lot better.”

Three years ago, Hudak played it safe and lost. This time, he’s taken a big gamble. Ontario voters may not like the new Tim Hudak, but the question now is whether they’re willing to trust him.