Untangling the complicated legacy of Tim Hudak

By Steve Paikin - Published on August 10, 2016
Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, Tim Hudak
Steve Paikin writes about the many faces of Tim Hudak, as the former PC leader leaves politics. Credit: Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press

I always thought there were three Tim Hudaks.

The first was the personable, funny, even charming guy you’d enjoy having a beer with, who loved his two young daughters with every ounce of strength he could muster. And he needed to be strong for them, particularly his older girl, Miller, who has had significant health challenges since birth.

I remember asking Hudak during one election campaign event why, unlike most political leaders I’d covered, he chose to have a huge picture of his family on the side of his campaign bus.

Instantly, the professional politician veneer cracked, the mask slipped, and Hudak’s eyes began to water. For a moment, the leader allowed the public to see what was truly motivating his time in public life ̶  doing what he believes will make the world better for his girls. It was the least phony, most sincere answer I ever saw him give during any of the six elections he contested as an MPP. That’s the first Tim Hudak.

However, once the answer was given, the mask returned, and it was over to the second Tim   ̶   the over-rehearsed, too robotic, message track machine, who was just unable, as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, to connect with the public beyond his own small-c conservative base (35 per cent of the votes in 2011, 31 per cent in 2014). There’s nothing illegal about not being able to come across as your normal self on television. But it can be extremely problematic if you’re trying to persuade voters to trust you. Even Stephen Harper won three elections in part because even if you saw a serious, dour, not particularly personable leader, the public never had any doubt that that’s who Harper was. Apparently, they had lots of doubts that the too-robotic Tim was truly being himself.

The truth is, he wasn’t. I remember once asking Hudak why the congenial guy I was then talking to off camera disappeared whenever the red light came on.

“Don’t you think I want to know that, too?” he answered plaintively. “I’m working on it.” But with rare exceptions, it almost never happened.

Which leads us to the third Tim Hudak, whom not many people liked at all. That’s the politician who essentially slandered the new premier before the last election campaign, by blatantly overreaching and accusing her of possibly directing the alleged malfeasance that had happened during the transition from premier Dalton McGuinty to Premier Kathleen Wynne, resulting in scrubbed hard drives leading to a police investigation. Despite the fact there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the outrageous claim, Hudak stuck by it, even after Wynne sued him for defamation. When the June 2014 election resulted in a fourth consecutive Liberal victory and a second consecutive Hudak-led loss, the lawsuit eventually went away when both sides’ lawyers found the right weasel words to satisfy both parties. But the damage to Hudak’s credibility was established.

That third Tim Hudak could be a nasty piece of business. He basically threw his former Thornhill MPP and finance critic Peter Shurman under the bus, over an expense account issue that Hudak green lit, then claimed he didn’t, to save face. The Hudak-Shurman relationship never recovered. I’ve also heard numerous stories that Hudak could be profanely tough on other Tory MPPs during caucus meetings that weren’t going particularly well. It all led to an extremely awkward showdown with caucus after the 2014 election loss. After announcing on election night he intended to step down as leader, Hudak added he wanted to remain on the job until his successor could be chosen. But the caucus was having none of it. It wanted him out right away.  Caucus won, and Simcoe-Grey MPP Jim Wilson took over as interim leader, until Patrick Brown could be selected months later.

Tim Hudak became an MPP in 1995 at the tender age of 27. He was part of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution. He eventually spent four years in cabinet in relatively junior portfolios (mines, culture, and consumer affairs) before becoming party leader in 2009. He never did succeed in winning a provincial election as leader, but again, that is no sin and puts him on a list of many other respected and well-known Ontario leaders who didn’t win elections (John Tory, Ernie Eves, Larry Grossman, Lyn McLeod, Robert Nixon, Stuart Smith, Andrea Horwath, Howard Hampton, Stephen Lewis, Donald McDonald, and many others).

If there is one overarching irony about Hudak’s career, it’s that he preached the gospel of smaller government and a more dynamic private sector, and yet, he’s spent pretty much his whole adult life being paid by the taxpayers. Even now, as he leaves his job as MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook for the chief executive officer’s role at the Ontario Real Estate Association, he’s not going far. His job will be to lobby Queen’s Park for friendly policies for the 64,000 people who sell homes in Ontario.

To be sure, most Ontarians will remember Hudak for his 2014 election promise to eliminate 100,000 positions in the broader public sector, which many observers think cost him a potential victory. And yes, he will have to wear that forever   ̶   that is part of the political record of his time at Queen’s Park.

But not me. Instead, my lasting memory of Hudak will be the guy who almost broke down at the end of our interview on The Agenda earlier this year (see below), as he recounted how much time he missed with his older daughter, because of his commitments as leader of the Ontario PCs.

That Tim Hudak   ̶   Tim Hudak #1, if you like   ̶   is a great dad, a good guy to have a beer with, and a real mensch.