Tory confident PCs on right track after rocky year
NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. - What could have been a weekend of atonement for Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory turned into a old-fashioned party revival, completing his resurrection from embattled prince-in-exile to pulpit-thumping preacher ready to lead his flock into another bid to bring down the ruling Liberals.
Tory emerged from the party's convention Sunday a leader reborn, confident that he'd restored the party's faith in him and optimistic that the year ahead would be far better than the previous one.
His shaky grip on the Conservative crown and his 15-month search for a seat in the legislature never came up during his closed-door meeting with hundreds of the party's members, he said.
The so-called "accountability" session -- which was closed to reporters -- could have turned ugly for Tory, who has fought to win over critics embittered by the party's humiliating defeat in the 2007 election.
Instead, the meeting was "all about the issues," particularly Ontario's tanking economy, Tory said.
"I think this party has come through a difficult period that often happens in the aftermath of an unsuccessful election, and I think they're now united in purpose," he said.
"They're here in very large numbers, they're determined to find the right platform to oust this government."
Internal grumblings about Tory's leadership appear to have died down since January, when Conservative Laurie Scott announced she would step aside and give him a shot at her central Ontario seat of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock.
Party members even shot down a pointed proposal during Friday's constitutional session that would have limited the amount of time future leaders could hang on to the top job without a seat.
Few skeptics were willing to speak out against Tory during the three-day convention, privately saying they'd reserve their judgment until after the March 5 byelection.
Many party members pointed to the convention's impressive turnout of over 1,000 people as proof that a brighter future lay ahead.
The Ontario Conservatives haven't attracted such a huge crowd since 1994, when Mike Harris was leader of the party, said caucus chairman Frank Klees.
"The party's now thinking about what we need to do to form the next government, rather than being preoccupied with obviously what the internal machinations had been for too long -- we're over that hurdle," he said.
"Even people who over the last couple of years were putting forward some very challenging issues to John's leadership, in this convention, are taking the position, 'That's in the past, John is going to have a seat, he's our leader and let's get on with it."'
A major turning point came during Tory's speech to the party faithful Saturday night, Klees said.
"A lot of people (were) saying, 'Look, we hear someone who has a burning desire, we hear someone who is passionate about leadership,"' he said.
"There's a change that has taken place in John Tory."
But it's not just the prospect of a leader re-joining his caucus in the Opposition benches that's lifted party spirits, Klees said.
Outrage over Ontario's economic troubles, a looming deficit and massive job losses have focused the party's energies to a single goal: defeating the governing Liberals in the 2011 election, Klees said.
Reuben Devlin, who opposed Tory staying on during last year's contentious leadership vote, said the mood among party members was positive and upbeat this time around.
"I don't think it's any secret that the No. 1 concern is the economy," said the former party president.
"They want a vision for the province, don't see a vision currently as to where Ontario is going, so that's what the request is -- let's work together to build that Conservative vision for the future."
The Progressive Conservatives will build on their reputation as strong managers of the Ontario economy in their campaign to take the Liberals down, Tory said.
But it will probably be at least another year before voters get a peek at a platform outlining what the Tories would do to turn things around, he acknowledged.
The party is still putting together policy ideas that will likely be decided at next year's convention, he said.
Tory vowed to deliver a much different platform than the one released ahead of the 2007 election, which saw the Conservatives suffer one of their worst defeats ever.
Many blamed the loss on Tory's controversial campaign promise to extend public funding to religious schools. His refusal to back off the proposal until the last minute weakened the party's chances of defeating the Liberals.
"We're going to be shorter, we're going to be more concise, there's going to be a clearer choice for people between the big-spending, big-taxing, big-regulating, anti-business policies of Mr. McGuinty and the approach we're going to offer," Tory said.
"It's going to be a beacon of hope for people."
The party has also cleared some significant milestones, he said. The debt has been reduced to about $2 million and ties between the federal and provincial parties are stronger than ever.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared in a taped video message during Saturday's dinner, praising the Ontario party and its help during the fall federal election.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, Industry Minister Tony Clement, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson were all spotted at the weekend convention in Niagara Falls, Ont.
In a speech Saturday, Kenney heaped praise on Harris's far-right Conservative government and its controversial "Common Sense Revolution" agenda.
Harris, who took power in 1995 following the defeat of an NDP government led by Liberal convert Bob Rae, cut taxes and slashed spending in Ontario, including a 22 per cent reduction in welfare rates.
The approach prompted angry labour unrest and widespread protests that culminated in a violent clash between police and anti-poverty activists on the front lawn of the provincial legislature in 2000.
Harris's influence is still felt around the federal cabinet table, which includes many prominent ex-Ontario Tories like Flaherty, Clement, Van Loan and Infrastructure and Transport Minister John Baird.
Since Harris's departure in 2002, the Ontario party has shifted more to the ideological centre and again embraced the so-called "red Tory" principles espoused by longtime Conservative premier Bill Davis -- one of John Tory's political heroes.