Sunday, June 28, 2009

Road to 2011: Premier Who-Dat?

As of yesterday the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leadership race is over, and Tim Who-Dat Hudak will be their great golden hope to carry them back to the Premier's Office after a six-year absence. I can't say I'm surprised, but neither can I say I'm excited - I wrote about his run back in April, and even then he seemed like one of the better candidates. Witness Christine Elliot's predilection for a flat tax, say, or Randy Hillier's proposal to have "Highway 448" crash through Scarborough1 and to dismantle the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I've seen Frank Klees described as a "social conservative," but I haven't yet found anything in the fragments of his platform to bear that out.

It seems as if Hudak may be the least objectionable of the lot.

Oh, joy.

Hudak's victory was the lead story on the Toronto Star's website this morning, and it ran with a photograph of Hudak being congratulated by former Premier Mike Harris, who ran the province (into the ground, some might say) from 1995 to 2002. Highly appropriate, as Hudak has ditched his previous "unknown cipher" status and embraced the role of a Harris loyalist, and if he does march victorious into Queen's Park two years from now, we'd only need to look at history to see what he'd do.

I suppose that the time is more than good enough to hold a wake for the Big Blue Machine. Back in the day, you see, the Progressive Conservatives had the same sort of grip over Ontario as the Liberal Democratic Party still does in Japan. In the sixty-two years between 1923 and 1985, the PCs were only out of power for a nine-year interlude, and most of that owed to Mitchell Hepburn. They managed this stretch by being competent in government, by not rocking the boat, and particularly in the 1970s by out-liberalling the Liberals.

Back then, it seems "conservatism" meant a steady hand on the wheel, worthwhile investment, and a lack of interest in legislating social issues or ideology. While Mike Harris didn't represent social conservatism of the sort that's far more common in the United States, he sure as hell did use Queen's Park as a blunt instrument to stamp his ideology onto Ontario. Among his more storied victories were the forcible amalgamation of the cities of Metropolitan Toronto and the sale of Highway 407 to a foreign company in a sweetheart 99-year-lease that included unlimited control of tolls on the highway. In the original plan it was only supposed to be a toll road for thirty-five years, and that only to pay off the cost of its construction.

Why was it sold, by the by? According to a 1999 article from TOLLROADSnews, because the province would get $900 million "profit" back after paying off its 407-related debts. And, you know, why would the province possibly want to retain control over a major highway when it could turn it into a one-time opportunity for bread and circuses right before an election?

The Big Blue Machine is dead and, at least in the foreseeable future, isn't coming back. Personally I feel that the success of Stephen Harper's Conservatives at the federal level are responsible for this. The Conservatives in Ottawa have taken a particularly right-wing tack ever since their foundation in 2003, and really, it Just Wouldn't Do for provincial conservatives to be ideologically out-of-step with their federal brethren. Bear in mind I'm not saying this isn't something Harper's engineered. It's more the case that there's only room for one flavor of conservatism in government at a time.

At this point, it's far, far too early to speculate on whether Hudak will actually win the 2011 election. All I can say is that there's a chance for it to happen, and given the legacy Mike Harris left this province, I can't say that I'm looking forward to the prospect of an encore.

1 But he DID support building the Downtown Relief Line... I'm torn!

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