Having covered Christine Elliott’s two previous bids to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, I can say this without reservation: the former MPP is a much-improved candidate this time around.
Without meaning to be cruel, there’s good reason Elliott was twice rejected for her party’s top job. She was a nervous performer and got out-organized at every turn by both Tim Hudak (in 2009) and Patrick Brown (in 2013).
One of her other problems in past years — although I’ve been told this only anonymously and in whispers — was that Elliott was regarded as a kind of second fiddle to her late husband, Jim Flaherty, whose seat at Queen’s Park she assumed when he moved to the federal arena and became the longest-serving Conservative finance minister in Canadian history.
Flaherty, also a twice-rejected candidate for Ontario Tory leader, was nevertheless a highly respected star in politics — and Elliott suffered by comparison.
Things have changed.
Her nine years as an MPP, six as deputy leader, and two as Ontario’s patient ombudsman have given Elliott a solid grounding in a variety of issues, something she lacked in her previous two runs.
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Whereas in the past, Elliott’s stump speeches left her audiences underwhelmed, she now speaks confidently without notes, touching on a variety of subjects, and with a forcefulness that was lacking during her previous bids.
Let me also say with no hint of disrespect at all that with her husband’s untimely death in 2014, Elliott has been able to come into her own as a political force.
When she lost to Patrick Brown nearly three years ago, Elliott was criticized for running a lacklustre campaign in which she didn’t work hard enough. This time, Elliott is impressing observers with her marathon schedule, doing multiple events in multiple cities some days. Yesterday morning, in north Toronto, after giving her standard stump speech, she stayed for another hour to answer attendees’ individual questions on a wide range of issues, spoke with knowledge about each of them, and posed for pictures. It was nine o’clock on a Sunday morning — hardly prime time in politics — and yet the room was packed not only with enthusiastic supporters but also with interested observers looking for a reason to vote for her.
Elliott’s unique value proposition is that she’s the most experienced candidate in a race that’s too short to enable novices the time to develop their leadership chops.
"Whether you like her or not, Kathleen Wynne is smart, she's a good communicator, and I'm the only one with experience debating her in the legislature," Elliott told yesterday’s gathering.
The contrasts with the other high-profile moderate Conservative in this race are instructive. To date, the only nominated candidate (in York–Simcoe) of the four leadership contenders, Caroline Mulroney has outshone the others when it comes to fundraising, absolutely hitting it out of the park. That would be especially helpful in a long, drawn-out contest, as leadership races often are. But in this nearly unprecedented five-week sprint, there may actually not be enough time to spend what the campaign has raised, which would negate any possible advantage.
Mulroney has offered herself as the choice of the next generation, insisting that experience in this age of anti-politicians is no asset. Since she has no political experience per se, it makes sense for Mulroney to play that card.
The trouble comes when the questions start rolling in. At a luncheon event last Friday, Mulroney did well enough reading her stump speech on her five priority items. She even finished with a clever line: if she were able to send Wynne into an early retirement, she said, “I might even appoint her as Ontario’s patient ombudsman” — a veiled shot at Elliott, who accepted that position from Wynne.
But when the audience started asking questions, Mulroney had little to add. That’s not surprising for a rookie candidate for political office, but it is a little troubling if the first office you’re seeking is the second-toughest job in Canadian politics.
The Mulroney campaign has also chosen an interesting post-speech approach: before taking audience questions, Mulroney sits down for a Q&A session with former federal cabinet minister Lisa Raitt, whom Mulroney has described as a role model and mentor. Even though, no doubt, the candidate has seen the questions ahead of time, the answers still lack any depth.
Moreover, Raitt’s ebullient personality — not to mention tremendous comfort with and deep knowledge of many issues — only serves to highlight Mulroney’s shortcomings even further.
Mulroney is also playing “the father card” now. The country’s 18th prime minister, Brian Mulroney, is making his most significant campaign appearance on behalf of his daughter this week. Even at almost age 79, he’s still one of the country’s great speakers. The campaign needs to be careful that the candidate doesn’t look weak in comparison.
I have little doubt that Caroline Mulroney, some day, will be a strong and impressive politician. But her father lost his first leadership bid in 1976 because, among other reasons, he wasn’t ready for the top job. Seven years later, he was, and he became leader of the opposition. Fifteen months after that, he became prime minister. In other words, he had the luxury of time to forge his leadership chops.
Caroline Mulroney is trying to do in a few weeks what her father, one of the country’s most gifted politicians, took eight years to do.
That will be a tall order.