Last Friday’s swearing-in of Ontario’s first Progressive Conservative government in 15 years was a reminder of something crucially important: unlike billions of other people in the world, we Ontarians have elections then experience a peaceful transfer of power.
No one dies; no one even gets a hangnail. That’s something we should never take for granted.
Yes, almost 60 per cent of Ontarians voted against the PCs. But, in another hallmark of strong democracies, Doug Ford, in his first speech as premier, implored that 60 per cent to give him a chance to show that his government can represent them even if they didn’t vote for him. We’ll see.
While all the focus that day was rightly on Ford and his new cabinet, I couldn’t help but think of three other lifelong Tories whose heads must have been spinning these past six months. Two of them were actually at the swearing-in. The third, understandably, couldn’t bring himself to show up, but he watched all of it nonetheless.
Those three conservatives are Tim Hudak, John Tory, and Patrick Brown. All three had their shot at experiencing what Ford did last Friday: being sworn in as premier of Ontario. It’s possible that all three had a moment during the festivities in which they thought, “That could have been me” or maybe even, “That should have been me.”
But for a variety of reasons, none was able to stand where Ford stood last Friday. Their stories were in my head as I watched Ford swear to faithfully uphold the trust reposed in him by the people of Ontario as their new premier and minister of intergovernmental affairs.
Hudak stood outside in the blistering heat, one of the guests invited to watch Ford take his oath and become the province’s 26th premier. In 2011, Hudak’s first election as PC leader, he gave the governing Liberals the scare of their lives, coming within two percentage points of Dalton McGuinty’s vote totals.
However, given the way the votes split, McGuinty’s 37.7 per cent was good for 53 seats (one shy of a majority), while Hudak’s 35.5 per cent delivered only 37 seats. Still and all, Hudak certainly had the Tories poised to win the next time out.
Alas, for Hudak’s supporters, it didn’t happen the next time either. In 2014, a combination of the province’s fascination with its first female premier, Kathleen Wynne, plus an ill-advised promise by Hudak to eliminate 100,000 public-service jobs, doomed the Tories’ chances. The Liberals recaptured their majority government, and the PCs lost nine seats.
Tory was also at the Ford government swearing-in, although as the current mayor of Toronto, he merited a much closer view of the proceedings than Hudak did. Tory sat just a few metres away from the grand staircase inside the Ontario legislature and thus had a bird’s-eye view of a ceremony he had certainly hoped to experience in 2007, when he led the PCs into that election against a vulnerable Liberal government.
Unfortunately for Tory’s Tories, they, too, lost to the Liberals because of an ill-advised election promise. Tory felt Ontario Catholics were unfairly advantaged by having access to two fully funded school systems, one secular and one religious. He wanted to level the playing field by offering some public funding to other religious schools. While he might have accurately identified an inequity (albeit a constitutionally protected one) in our education system, the public simply didn’t go for the PC leader’s proposed solution. The results of the 2007 election were essentially the same as those from 2003 (the Liberals lost one seat, and the PCs gained two). Before long, Tory had gotten out of provincial politics and became a talk-radio host.
And, finally, there’s Ford’s predecessor, Brown, whose departure from the PC leadership was about as unprecedented as it comes in Canadian politics.
It’s still astonishing to consider that it was less than half a year ago that Brown took a four-times-vanquished, broke, disillusioned party and through dogged hard work filled the party’s coffers with cash and moved the PCs into first place in the polls — all while making the kind of inroads into multicultural communities that previous Tory leaders could only dream of. But a sexual-misconduct scandal emerged in late January, which prompted Brown’s resignation and meant that, unlike Hudak and Tory, he would not get the chance to face the electorate. Ford walked into a turnkey operation, made the right moves when he had to, and, as a result, is now premier.
Brown, a political junkie, would no doubt have loved to attend the swearing-in, but he made the sensible decision not to. Still, his interest wouldn’t allow him to ignore the event entirely: I spoke to him over the phone the other day, and he told me he watched it on television, as difficult as that surely was.
As conservatives, the three men were surely pleased to see the end of the Liberals’ 15-year reign at Queen’s Park. However, they were probably also wistful that they weren’t the ones to have brought the four-time victors to their knees. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t allow their imaginations to go there.
Brown and Tory probably were more actively imagining it. After all, Brown did temporarily get back into the race to succeed himself, figuring he could win his old job back. And Tory, understandably, kicked the tires on trying to get his old job back — he was, after all, probably the most successful and high-profile Conservative politician in the country at the time of Brown’s resignation. Many supporters urged him to go for the job, arguing that the party needed a solid, experienced, steady hand to guide it. Ultimately, of course, Tory opted to remain at Toronto City Hall.
If there’s anything the stories of the last four PC leaders has taught us, it’s that those of us who watch Ontario politics for a living ought to be a lot more humble. A decade ago, Tory looked like a spent force in politics. Today, he is well on his way to being re-elected as the mayor of Canada’s largest city.
Four years ago, Hudak’s political reputation was in tatters. Today, he is the head of the Ontario Real Estate Association and, during the PC Party’s leadership contest and election campaign, he was a go-to guy for numerous media outlets seeking insight.
Also four years ago, Ford was a defeated mayoral candidate in Toronto with an uncertain political future. Today, he stands atop Ontario’s political mountain.
And, less than six months ago, Brown was well on his way to winning the premiership. Yesterday, he filed his papers to seek the chairmanship of the municipality of Peel Region — something that he stands a good chance of winning. It’s not as big a prize as Premier of Ontario, but given where Brown’s political career was six months ago, a victory would certainly constitute one of the greatest comebacks in Canadian political history.
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