by Steve Paikin Sunday December 2, 2012

I can remember one of the earliest exchanges I had with Tim Hudak, shortly after he won the leadership of the Ontario PC Party in June 2009.

Hudak was 41 years old. I had the temerity to tell him that I thought one of the more interesting stories worth watching at Queen’s Park over the next several years was his development, not just as a politician, but also as a person.

The fact was, Hudak had been a politician since he was 27. He hadn’t exactly brought a wealth of different life experiences with him to his job as the MPP for Niagara South, the riding he represented when he was first elected in 1995.

So at a PC Party reception in the leader’s office, I allowed that "watching you develop as a politician and as a person over the next few years could be an interesting story. I know you may think you’re a fully-formed person, but as a guy who’s almost a decade older than you, I can tell you, you’re not."

And so, I’ve been watching the Hudak story develop for two and a half years. And as I suspected, the story has been plenty interesting.

Hudak lost his first election as leader in 2011, which is no sin. No rookie leader has outright won his first election since William Davis did so in 1971. It’s a hard thing to do (take note all you leadership candidates trying to replace Dalton McGuinty).

But many of the Tory faithful weren’t happy with what they saw in Hudak. Namely, blowing a 15-point lead over a vulnerable Liberal premier, beating wedge issues such as “foreign workers” and chain gangs like a drum, essentially running a negative campaign, and forgetting to give Ontarians a positive reason to vote for him.

So what did Hudak do?

He overcorrected.

If people think I’m a negative, mean, frat-boy type, he thought, I’m going to be Mr. Folksy that everyone likes. And so Hudak appeared for news conferences and public events with plenty of smarmy charm, dropped his "g’s," and began every sentence with "Hey," or "Look," in an effort to turn the page.

Apparently it convinced almost no one. While Hudak got a very satisfactory vote of approval from party members at the Tories’ post-election annual general meeting, the grumblings behind the scenes didn’t let up. Too many people still thought he wasn’t translating for too many Ontarians. His gender gap numbers are still quite bad.

But something happened last week.

Hudak gave a speech to the Economic Club of Canada. He wasn’t Mr. Negative. He wasn’t Mr. Folksy. Instead, he was Mr. Tough.

This may be a moment where we see a confluence of Hudak finally being comfortable with PC Party policy and comfortable in his own skin. And perhaps not coincidentally, he just turned 45.

"I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear," Hudak said to a roomful of supporters. "We have to make tough choices not everyone will like. So buckle in."

Strong start.

Despite no doubt being told that former Premier Mike Harris’ name is still box-office poison in much of Ontario, Hudak went right at it:

"I’m darned proud to be part of the Mike Harris team that fixed the economy 15 years ago," he said.

Over the past several months, instead of championing gimmicks that can buy a cheap headline for a day, Hudak’s PCs have been releasing “white papers” on a wide range of issues, from energy to pension reform. And the papers are unabashedly conservative, taking direct aim at the size of government and public sector unions.

"Over the past decade, there isn't a single thing the public sector unions have been denied by the McGuinty government," Hudak charges. "We must reduce the size and cost of government."

But Hudak’s not done:

"There’s a new deal for the public sector coming. If bureaucrats are not doing the job, they won't have one anymore."

He’ll cut the size of cabinet by a third. He’ll dock his ministers’ pay if they don’t make good on policy objectives.

"And the government will get out of businesses we shouldn't be in, like the LCBO and casinos."

In fact, Monday morning, Hudak held court at a convenience store at Bay and Wellesley Streets in downtown Toronto to decry a situation where, as he describes it, government bureaucrats decide how to design the latest "scratch and win" lottery games, or how many roulette wheels should be in the casinos. Hudak said he'd get as far out of the lottery and gaming business as he could, including selling the casinos to the private sector, if possible. (That would require federal government approval.)

Yes to more tax cuts. Yes to fewer workplace regulations that Hudak says stifle innovation.

"Ontario has risen up before and we will again," he says, getting to the crescendo of his speech. "I won't shrink from tough decisions. I'll do what needs to be done. Ontario is on her way back."

I suggested in a tweet that Hudak may finally have found his voice: the right policies for him, and a more authentic way to sell them. A staunch conservative tweeted me back saying Hudak "always had his voice, you just weren’t listening."

I respectfully disagree. The fact that Hudak jumped from pillar to post, both on issues and style, suggested to me he hadn’t found his voice.

Maybe now, he has. And given that we may be three or four months away from an election, we may not have to wait long to see whether these new efforts will pay off.