The minute Christine Elliott, the Ontario PC member from Whitby-Oshawa, formally launched her bid to succeed Tim Hudak as leader of the party on Wednesday, she became the clear front-runner.
If she wins, she’ll dramatically change politics at Queen’s Park. Specifically, she’ll change how the Progressive Conservatives are treated and viewed by the Ontario media and opposition parties.
Under Hudak, the Ontario PC party was viewed as a hard-right, fiscally-conservative bunch, rural-based and dominated by angry old white guys short on compassion — sexist and unfriendly to women, mothers, children and immigrants.
During the recent provincial election campaign, Hudak and his party were vilified for calling for the dismissal of 100,000 public servants. Liberal Premier Wynne whipped up enough fear to motivate her base to come out and vote; she also scared NDP supporters into voting Liberal in order to stop Hudak from being elected.
That was then. Things have changed. When word spread this week that Christine Elliott was about to announce her leadership bid, many media commentators rather dismissively referred to Ms. Elliott as the “widow of Jim Flaherty”.
Then an interesting thing happened. Many male and female commentators leapt to Elliott’s defence and attacked the media for being implicitly sexist by describing her as an extension of the late federal finance minister’s own political career — ignoring her many achievements as a lawyer, entrepreneur, politician and advocate for children and adults with disabilities.
How many times has that ever happened to an Ontario PC member during the Harris, Eves, Tory and Hudak years? Try never.
In the past, the media tended to run photos of Tim Hudak scowling or grinning like a frat boy at a kegger. Compare those to the photo of Elliott in the Globe and Mail on Thursday just prior to her leadership announcement. She looks calm, confident and self-assured, her sights firmly set on her opponents — Wynne and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
In the speech launching her campaign, Elliott deftly broke from Hudak’s legacy by suggesting that, under her leadership, the Progressive Conservative party would not view fiscal policy as an end in itself, and that “good economic policy enables good social policy.”
“Fiscal responsibility and social compassion can and, in fact, must go hand in hand,” she said. “These are the values that I’ve always carried with me.”
Unlike Hudak or his predecessors, Elliott talks the talk and walks the walk. Her fiscal conservatism credentials are sterling. But she is also known for her many years of sincere, hard work with developmentally disabled children and adults. One of her sons is developmentally challenged.
Elliott was one of the founders and driving forces behind the Abilities Centre in Whitby — a large, modern and inclusive sports and recreational facility that works with the developmentally challenged and incorporates them in the whole community.
Since her election in 2006, Elliott has served as her party’s health critic, heavily involved in developing the party’s social policy. She set up and served on legislative committees dealing with people with developmental disabilities. She is known as collegial and hard-working, and is well-liked and respected by members of all parties.
With Elliott leading the Tories, both Wynne and Horwath would have a hard time painting the party as a scary coven of “slash and burn” Harrisites. She offers the Tories a fighting chance at grabbing the Holy Grail of conservatism: combining prudent economic policy with legitimate and compassionate social policies, and competing for the middle — where most Ontario voters live.
If she wins the leadership, she’ll be in a position to kick the board over and rewrite the rules of Ontario politics. This is a candidate who can present the Progressive Conservatives as a more open, moderate and compassionate party, one able to appeal to women, independents, urbanites, suburbanites and soft Liberal and NDP supporters.
In other words, for Wynne and Horwath, Christine Elliott would be a lot scarier than Tim Hudak.