When Tory Strayed

I’ll credit Dalton McGuinty for one thing: the decision to lock down the provincial election to the second Monday of October spares us the sort of perpetual campaign we’re seeing in the States. The summer months ensure that few people are really paying attention to politics, keeping the various campaigns low key. Although this is a happy accident more than something designed, the effect is still something similar to if Dalton McGuinty had called the election around Labour Day. I’m sure that the folks who tire easily of election campaigns appreciate this. Certainly those who tire easily of campaign hyperbole do.

But there is a campaign going on, with the various leaders attending various barbecues and small and large town festivals throughout the province. And there is a campaign in the blogosphere as well, where political junkies like me never get enough. What we see here is likely to be a prelude to what we’ll see on our television screens come September. And if some corners of the blogosphere are any indication, it’s going to be a nasty fight. And I’m not looking forward to it.

An instructive blog to read is, once again, that operated by Warren Kinsella. This former backroom operative seems to be working closely with the McGuinty campaign, and I must say the I appreciate the insight I’m gaining on how politics work. I’m less sure if I appreciate the Liberal strategy that appears to be taking form.

Kinsella likes negative campaigns. He believes, firmly, that they work. And in the rough and tumble world of politics, he also believes that the best defence is a good offence. Reading his blog, you will find a number of swipes taken against Conservative leader John Tory, a number of them more personal in nature than political. Typical is his July 13th entry where he writes “Here is a rather unfortunate shot of John T. in this morning’s Ottawa Citizen, riding on public transit for the first time.”

To be clear, the picture is rather unfortunate, but those things haven’t lost an election for a politician since Bob Stanfield. It’s the last part of the statement that’s most telling, however: John Tory is an elitist, a rich boy, a corporate fat cat born with a silver spoon in his mouth who has no understanding of ordinary Ontarians.

No word on whether this was actually true, or not. Somehow I doubt it. Tory had to start from somewhere. He lived in Toronto and attended the University of Toronto before I was even in grade school. I lived just south of the University of Toronto, and as a result I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 23 (didn’t need to, and didn’t want to).

This is just one of the lines of strategy being used. Among the others used is that John Tory leads the party of Mike Harris; that John Tory has no principles of his own; that he will make deals with just about every devil in order to fight his way into the premier’s chair. That John Tory is basically unchanged from the man who approved disastrous Conservative Party ads mocking Liberal leader Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis during the 1993 federal election.

However, these features of Tory did not prevent Kinsella and other Liberals from supporting his bid to become mayor of Toronto in 2004. There, Tory’s undogmatic attitude was spun as a man who listened to voters and gathered ideas from diverse quarters; thinking out of the box to solve Toronto’s problems. I know this because this is precisely what impressed me most about Tory’s mayoralty campaign. Even though I preferred David Miller, I had to admit that Tory brought new ideas and a diverse coalition to the table; that he was a consensus builder, a big-tent kind of guy. So why was Tory a good mayor for Toronto but a bad premier for Ontario?

Kinsella himself has had to address this point directly on his blog. Here’s an excerpt from an entry dated June 14:

Just did an interview with a nice fellow from Toronto Life. They’re doing a big piece on John Tory. Apparently Tory and his staff delighted in pointing out to the writer that I and other Liberals supported Tory when he ran for mayor of Toronto.

It’s true, we did, I told this writer.

We chatted about this and that, and then I came to why I and so many others are so disappointed (and in some cases angry) with John Tory.

(After writing this blog post, by the way, Philip Preville e-mailed me and alerted me to the fact that John Tory’s profile has been published and is now online)

The reasons that Kinsella gives are a fair argument and I’ll return to those later, but I’m hard pressed to imagine any circumstance that Liberals like Kinsella could have been pleased with John Tory in his capacity as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives — short of folding up the party and merging with the Liberals. I’m sorry to say that I don’t buy the reasons given as being more legitimate the big reason I suspect is there: that Tory got into the Liberal party’s sights the day he announced his intention to become leader of the provincial Conservatives, nothing more.

Indeed, when Tory became leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Kinsella himself set up a fun tongue-in-cheek site likening Tory to Richie Rich, and the Progressive Conservative caucus to the cast of the Flintstones. More recently, when the campaign against Cheri DiNovo, the New Democrat candidate for Parkdale, got nasty and personal, Kinsella tried to blunt criticism from the local Conservative candidate by pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of Don Hutchison being upset at a smear campaign against Cheri DiNovo when his own leader authorized the political advertisement mocking Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis.

In terms of charting the depth of Liberal anger against John Tory, it seems to rise in an inverse correlation to the number of days left before the October election, and in direct correlation to the rising possibility of Tory pulling off an upset. The anger just doesn’t make sense to me other than the fact that Liberals now face Tory as an opponent, and I suspect that a number of Ontarians think the same way, and that personal attacks on Tory himself may have less traction as a result. Tory was a good enough leader for the Liberals only when there was no prospect of him actually beating any Liberals.

But let’s turn to the next two paragraphs of that June 14th blog entry, and the reasons Kinsella gives for the Liberals supposedly being so angry at their main opponent.

“How can John Tory actually claim to be a ‘progressive’ conservative, as he does,” I asked this writer, “when he has allowed a knuckle-dragger like Randy Hillier to be his candidate up near Ottawa? How can he, on the one hand, express moderate disapproval of Hillier before the nomination - and then, just on Saturday, applaud Hillier as he was introduced onstage? How can he - and I am quoting verbatim from the Lanark Landowners Manifesto, here, written by his candidate Hillier - embrace a man who has written this: ‘Using taxpayer’s dollars, our governments support and promote Quebec, Native, Arts, Homosexual, Urban and Multi cultures. However when it comes to the independent, peaceful rural culture in Canada, government support is stifling, suffocating and controlling.’ That’s what John Tory’s candidate, Randy Hillier, wrote!”

I was warming up, a bit, so I kept going: “Shame on John Tory! Shame on him! Shame on him for claiming to be an urban, urbane ‘progressive’ conservative, and then turning around and permitting the candidacy of someone who rails against ‘Quebec, Native, Arts, Homosexual, Urban and Multi cultures’! ”

Well, that’s one interpretation. Another interpretation is that supporting and promoting Quebec, Native, Arts, Homosexual, Urban and Multicultural issues is fine, but that Hillier is upset that rural issues is, in his view, at the bottom of the list. Not having read the entire article to establish its context, I can’t say for sure.

But you see what’s happening, here? A number of the attacks on Tory are not aimed directly at him, but that those around him. Tory has no problem acting as the public face of his party; indeed, he is possibly the Conservatives’ best asset in urban Ontario, being comfortable in front of a camera, eloquent in interviews and having a thoughtful, moderate disposition. As a result, the Liberals are not asking Ontarians to vote against Tory, but against the legacy of the leaders that preceded him, and against the more controversial figures within the Tory team, key among them being the candidate for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, Randy Hillier.

I have to admit being nervous about Hillier, not because of the speeches Kinsella quotes (because some of these have already been taken out of context; and I couldn’t help but notice that the “Daily Hillier” Kinsella started earlier in the season has apparently gone on hiatus, as if there’s a dearth of juicy material), but because of his group’s (the Lanark Landowners Association) acts of civil disobedience, which have included clearing woodland in protest against environmental regulations, and driving tractors into Toronto and interfering with traffic around Queen’s Park. There is a confrontational attitude there, and my intuitive sense is that Hillier has some difficulty controlling his anger, not at any specific ethnic group, but at city people in general, whom he sees as not understanding or refusing to listen to the issues of farmers.

But this describes a whole lot of farmers. And this brings me to the big danger of trying to attack John Tory through Randy Hillier: do the Liberals really want to be seen as attacking farmers?

Whatever my concerns about Hillier’s past activities, the fact remains that he was approved as the Conservative candidate for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington through an open nomination meeting that appeared to be free of any controversy or allegations of interference from the party leadership. Regardless of what Kinsella or Tory thinks, Hillier is the Conservative candidate for that riding because local Conservatives want him to be their candidate, which means that Hillier resonates with a sizable portion of the electorate in his area of rural Ontario. If the Liberals want to hold up Hillier as the bogeyman to scare urban voters in line, they risk holding up all rural Ontarians in a similar manner.

I find this apparent Liberal strategy frustrating. In general, I despise it when parties refuse to run on their own records, and I believe that a negative campaign such as this suggests to voters that the Liberals don’t have a decent record to run on. They do have an excellent public transit platform that I want to see enacted, and that’s should be what they should be going to Ontarians with. John Tory has been frustratingly coy about costing out his proposals, and that’s what the Liberals should be criticizing him for, not whether the Tory party is anti-this or that because someone like Hillier could be pro-rural.

I am an urban Ontarian and I would like to see urban issues given priority in the next government. Toronto needs infrastructure money; Transit City needs to be built, and Kitchener-Waterloo needs its LRT, but rural issues are just as important to people who live in rural areas as urban issues are for me. Rural voters are Ontarians too. Writing off a part of the province was precisely Ernie Eves tactic in the 2003 election, with various policies on his platform designed to cater to the 905 suburbs at the expense of the 416 inner city. I criticized him for this move, and it would be hypocritical of me not to criticize a similar move going in a different direction.

And if nothing else, one wonders if Torontonians attacking Hillier doesn’t play right into Hillier’s hands, and the hands of all Tories in rural Ontario. The Tories have a strong rural base for a reason: because they have spoken to issues which resonate with rural voters. What is the Liberal plan to take seats in rural Ontario? Urban dwellers attacking farm activists doesn’t seem to me to be a wise one. Surely the attacks against Hillier would be more effective if voiced by the Liberal candidate in Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington. Um… who is the Liberal candidate in the riding of Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington?

The Liberals face a hard fight on two fronts. The NDP are making inroads in Toronto City Proper and Hamilton, while maintaining their strength in the north. The big Liberal versus Conservative fight is in the 905-belt region of the Greater Toronto Area. Given the Tories’ potential strength in rural Ontario, is it wise to basically hand that field to them by attacking rural activists and appearing to denigrate their issues? Do the Liberals honestly believe they can win an election solely on the seats of 905 belt and the urban pockets of southwestern and eastern Ontario? And, more importantly, would they deserve to?

They need to approach this with caution. An overly-negative campaign cost the Liberals Gerard Kennedy’s seat. A similar campaign may cost them Ontario.

blog comments powered by Disqus