As gossip about the new Ontario PC Party leadership race reached fever pitch, with many observers wondering whether Christine Elliott would dare jump back into partisan politics, the former MPP surprised everyone yesterday afternoon with a two-word tweet, ending all speculation.
“I’m in!” came the announcement at 4:07 p.m., catching everyone off guard.
And with that, given former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford’s announcement earlier this week, we now officially have a race.
Elliott’s entry has been the subject of considerable debate within Tory circles: so many people admire and respect her and want nothing but good things for her, given what she’s already suffered in politics and in life — but they fear she is embarking on another quest that will end in heartbreak.
Her candidacy no doubt got a shot in the arm Wednesday morning when Greg Lyle, the pollster, strategist, and analyst from Innovative Research Group, gave a presentation to the Public Affairs Association of Canada with fresh numbers that gave Elliott a two-to-one lead in favourability rankings over MP Lisa Raitt and interim PC party leader Vic Fedeli. You could see a sparkle in the eyes of John Capobianco, a long-time Tory backroom guy and co-chair of Elliott’s previous leadership bid in 2015.
“Wow,” he said as Lyle unveiled the numbers. “This could change everything.”
Of course, what made the numbers even more interesting was the fact that Elliott’s big lead was over two people who would not actually be contestants in the race. Her lead over rookie candidates Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips (who are expected to enter next week) was even bigger. And her lead over Doug Ford was seemingly insurmountable.
However, while those numbers indicated strong popularity for an Elliott leadership bid among the general public, they didn’t tell us what Progressive Conservative party members think. They also aren’t necessarily an indication of actual, deep support — they could merely indicate high name recognition. Naturally, having a profile in the broader community is useful. But it’s no substitute for the ability to sign up new members and get them out to vote, as Elliott learned the hard way in the party’s last leadership contest: she had all the big names on her team, developing policy and conveying an impression that Elliott was the frontrunner, but was crushed by Patrick Brown’s superior organization skills on decision day.
She soon after stepped down as the MPP for Whitby–Oshawa and was fortunate that Premier Kathleen Wynne threw her a lifeline, appointing her the first-ever patient ombudsman for the province, a non-partisan position.
At first blush, Elliott would seem to have some great advantages over her competitors. She’s a popular woman at at time where many party members think being a man is a major handicap.
Unlike Mulroney, Phillips, and Ford, she actually has some experience at Queen’s Park, having been an MPP from 2006 to 2015. She was her party’s critic for health care — which accounts for 40 per cent of Ontario’s program spending — and she consistently demonstrated her mastery of the issues.
Elliott also received considerable public praise for her grace and dignity in the months following the untimely death in 2014 of her husband, former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. She is the mother to triplet sons, one of whom has special needs. Elliott used her experience raising him to help create the Abilities Centre, in Whitby. It’s a place designed to enhance quality of life for people of all ages and abilities by providing inclusive programs.
However, while Elliott has those things in her favour, I’ve been in touch with a dozen people over the past few days, and to a person, they’ve expressed serious concerns about Elliott’s candidacy. When I asked one long-time friend what he thought of her jumping back into partisan politics, he responded with one word: “Terrible.”
This is actually the third time Elliott has offered herself up for her party’s leadership. She didn’t merely place a distant second to Brown last time out; in 2009, when she was expected to mount a competitive bid against eventual winner Tim Hudak in that year’s contest, she ended up coming third (behind MPP Frank Klees), surprising many with her weak performance.
Elliott has never been a spellbinding speaker. She comes across with genuine authenticity and empathy, but she was criticized last time out for not working hard enough to win: she even took a trip to Florida in the middle of the campaign. Many who supported her bid ended up doing very little to help her. She had the lion’s share of caucus onside, but that turned out to mean nothing. Almost none of them were able to deliver the votes in their ridings for her. Even Doug Ford, who promised to deliver “Ford Nation” to her campaign in 2015, lost his Etobicoke North stronghold to Brown. It raised questions about how many people liked Elliott but were, at the end of the day, not prepared to bust a gut to help her.
Furthermore, the list of prospective leadership candidates who have twice been rejected by their party only to win the third time is pretty short in Canadian political history. Former prime minister John Diefenbaker’s name is on that list and, I believe, that’s it.
Finally, Caroline Mulroney’s campaign is already floating the criticism that, when the chips were down, Elliott quit politics and took “a patronage appointment from Kathleen Wynne” as patient ombudsman. It may be a cheap shot, but it won’t be the last cheap shot taken in this campaign. Many friends of Elliott’s were surprised and nervous that she’d decided to enter the race because, as a former MPP, she has no pension and depended on the ombudsman’s job for her financial security. If she loses the leadership again, could she be reappointed to that position? Seems unlikely, although maybe if the Tories win the June election under a different leader, it could happen.
The key questions Elliott needs to answer are: What will be so different this time? Her party has vetted her twice and found her wanting. True, the party now has more moderate Tories than it did under Hudak, and they are a natural base of support for Elliott. But why is she the right answer for these times? She has just five weeks to come up with some answers.
Full disclosure: my wife is a PC volunteer who has offered health policy advice for the party’s 2018 election platform, performing the same role for Elliott’s 2015 leadership bid.
- The most astonishing night in Ontario political history
- What's next for Ontario's Progressive Conservatives
- The unlikely candidate the Tories should consider
- Tories choose Vic Fedeli to lead them, for now
- The Agenda: Brown fallout and PC election plans
- A whirlwind weekend for Ontario’s Tories
- Tories should ask themselves, why Doug Ford?
- The surprise frontrunner for the Tory leadership
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.