To move forward, the Ontario PCs need to look back

I have been actively involved in Ontario provincial politics for over forty years. Way back, well before robocalls and online polling, I cut my teeth as a political organizer for Red Tories Roy McMurtry and Larry Grossman in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

So I have few pieces of unsolicited advice for today’s Ontario PC Party.

Commenting on politics — especially so soon after a defeat, when emotions are still so raw — is like walking into a minefield. But here goes:

In essence, my advice is that the Ontario Tories should consider going back in time, figuratively speaking, to the party’s golden era — of “Brampton Bill” Davis and his “Big Blue Machine”. Pick and choose the successful and effective elements of the Davis government and try to modernize them, adapt them and apply them to today’s Ontario.

Davis was Ontario’s premier from 1971 to 1985 — one of Canada’s best premiers. He was a politically moderate conservative from the rapidly growing city of Brampton, who led and oversaw an ideologically diverse and inclusive cabinet that brought together Red Tories like McMurty and Grossman, centrists like Dr. Bette Stephenson and Dennis Timbrell, and right-wingers like Frank Miller.

In those days, the Tories were known as an urban/suburban party, with some rural roots, while the Liberal party was primarily rural-based. How times have changed.

The Davis government believed that government could be a force for good in certain circumstances — not necessarily all circumstances. Davis was known as the education premier. He believed every Ontario family should have access to quality educational opportunities, not just the wealthy. His government built new universities (Trent and Brock), and 22 community colleges.

Davis was pro-business. He believed in free markets. But he was not an ideological laissez-faire capitalist. When Ontario landlords were gouging defenseless apartment tenants, the Davis government intervened in the private real estate market and imposed rent controls.

Davis also had the sense to know when his government’s actions risked going too far. He overruled his own transit experts when he personally stopped plans to build the Spadina Expressway through some downtown communities — in response to a populist, community-based revolt led by urban icon Jane Jacobs.

Davis ran a government that couldn’t be pigeonholed. He was an idealist, a populist and a pragmatist. He believed that politics was a high calling, that the essence of politics was people and what people need.

The party can’t support another Harris clone. Nor can it elect as its leader another Red Tory-John Tory type — someone progressive, but lacking the necessary populist appeal and instincts.

His speeches to local community groups were part sermon, part stand-up comedy routine and part Rotarian meeting, calling the assembled to community action. He seemed to enjoy every part of politics — especially the kibitzing, sharing stories and listening to people tell him about their interests, joys and their sorrows.

Davis truly was a ‘Happy Warrior’. He respected the Ontario people. He believed they were always right.

Recall that though Ontario was suffering from stagflation in the 70s (as was most of Canada) and rising health costs, Davis resisted the call for government austerity by standing up to some of his own cabinet ministers and refusing to permit the closing of local hospitals.

In Davis’s day, the PC party wasn’t dismissed as a party of angry old white guys from the rural heartland. It was able to attract and appeal to a diverse group of men and women representing the many ethnic and religious urban communities of Ontario.

That is the Ontario PC party’s history and its DNA. It worked back then. It could work now. But first, the party has to take a clear-eyed and critical look at why it lost in 2014.

The party can’t support another Harris clone. Nor can it elect as its leader another Red Tory-John Tory type — someone progressive, but lacking the necessary populist appeal and instincts.

The party should look for female candidates to replace Tim Hudak — someone who was not part of the Harris cabinet. Such a leader would immunize the Tories from the inevitable Liberal attack ads trying to paint her as another slash-and-burn Harrisite.

A woman leader — fiscally prudent and conservative, but also likeable, moderate, trustworthy and empathetic — might be just be the ticket for the Tories’ return to power. Together with a suite of policies that are upbeat, positive and aimed at spurring growth, such leadership could connect the party to a much broader base: soccer moms, hockey moms, Tim Horton parents, union folk and Ontario’s many hard-working, diverse and multicultural communities.

The Ontario PC Party does not have to rebuild itself. It already has a solid foundation. It just needs to go back to its roots.

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