The conventional wisdom is that Progressive Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak lost the last Ontario provincial election because he promised to fire 100,000 civil servants. I believe, in this case at least, the conventional wisdom is correct.
However, in looking for lessons to be learned from the last election, I nevertheless think the conclusions that the Conservatives should never broach the subject of public sector layoffs again is wrong.
To see why, we must go back to the 2011 provincial election to understand why Tim Hudak said what he said in 2014. In 2011, Hudak made the fiscal incompetence of Dalton McGuinty the centerpiece of his campaign. With annual deficits running over $10 billion, and more billion-dollar boondoggles than you can count on your toes, it seemed like a good strategy.
The problem was that the Liberals had an effective counter. They asked Tim what government programs he was going to cut. And Hudak couldn’t tell them. He mumbled something about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Unfortunately, this was not a particularly convincing because if it were possible to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse without implementing painful and controversial budget cuts to do so, even the NDP would support them. No matter how much McGuinty pressed, Hudak didn’t have a serious answer. End result: Hudak looked weak.
To avoid this trap in 2014, Tim Hudak admitted that 100,000 positions needed to be eliminated. While this promise ultimately backfired, many conservatives – myself included – lauded Hudak for his candor. Tell the people the truth, level with them, and you can win… not with ease, but it can be done.
But it wasn’t to be. So does this mean that it isn’t possible to get elected in Ontario by telling the voters the truth? That to govern this province, you must first lie like a Liberal, and then stab your supporters in the back, like Kathleen Wynne will likely have to do in the coming four years? At this point in time, it certainly seems so, but I think there is a way where you can level with the voters and win a workable majority at the same time.
I believe that the weakness with Hudak’s campaign strategy wasn’t its content but its execution. The promise to eliminate 100,000 provincial jobs was just blurted out without any warning, or preparation, or context, or justification. As a result, it was a blank slate that his Liberal Party and public sector union opponents could write the most beautiful propaganda on.
A better campaign would have begun the same way as in 2011: attack the Liberals for their reckless fiscal irresponsibility, highlighting their many fiascoes. In making similar opening moves, the Liberals would have been steered towards the same reaction - calling Hudak out on the specifics of his planned cuts. At this point, the trap could have been sprung.
But first, the campaign would have stretched the moment out, by refusing to answer, in order to emphasize the point, allowing the charge-counter-charge cycle to build up to a dramatic crescendo. Then Hudak could have dropped the hammer, and answered them directly – by introducing a serious plan for balancing the budget, one that wouldn’t have skimped on the hard details.
Why would this have worked, when Hudak’s actual promise to fire 100,000 civil servants went over like a lead balloon?
Because the promise to eliminate 100,000 positions wouldn’t have been made in isolation, but only as part of a much larger plan, one whose aims had been made clear, properly justified, and with accompanying mitigating details (such as the fact that many of these positions would be eliminated by attrition). Many people actually turned off in 2014 would have been convinced because they will have been prepared to accept the right answer.
As well, allowing this point to dangle in the air for so long would have ensured that everybody would have been paying attention, with a significant share of the voters agreeing with it. That such voters exist, I have no doubt. It wasn’t that long ago when Ontario voters endorsed Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution – twice.
At this point, an argument I had made at the time to defend his cuts – but one that Hudak didn’t employ –could have also been used. I said that the only difference between Hudak and Wynne is that he is honest and she isn’t. The issue of the cuts themselves is irrelevant. This is because no matter whom you vote for, the government will have to cut regardless of what promises are made. The iron laws of economics will see to that.
Notice that nothing in my plan waters down any specifics. The problem with Tim Hudak isn’t that he is ‘too extreme’ or that he needs to ‘moderate’, but that doesn’t know how to persuade people about the things he believes in. Mike Harris could do that, and so can, for that matter, Rob Ford. But Hudak can’t. And that is what disqualified him for party leadership.