New Tory leader spells trouble for Liberals

First published:
March 27, 2002

Northumberland County Tories will be elated with the results of last Saturday’s selection of Ernie Eves as Ontario’s new Premier and leader. Local support from Doug Galt should mean good things both for the man and the future of Conservatives in this constituency.

Eves’ victory means a return to the managerial style of governing exemplified by his successful Tory predecessors Bill Davies and John Robarts. Expect a more pragmatic path that will address issues differently and move the party firmly into the centre rather than the more right-wing ideological reform of Mike Harris.

It is apparent the party was looking for a less aggressive, confrontational approach personified by Eves’ closest rival Jim Flaherty. While this may worry some of the neo-conservative forces in the party, there is little doubt Eves will be working overtime to ensure these factions will not be alienated.

This means Galt should be sitting pretty. Galt will also have to reach out to Flaherty supporters. While Eves won local delegates by a comfortable margin (230 votes to 144 in the first ballot and 218 to 143 on the second), fences will need mending.

Galt’s open support for Eves during the campaign and his long service record with the party make him a candidate for a ministerial post in Eves’ new cabinet. An unfortunate slip of the tongue just prior to the last shuffle meant Galt was overlooked. But his qualifications continue to make him a strong contender: agriculture and energy would be two obvious choices. His work as assistant to the current minister Brian Coburn and his leadership on the alternative energy committee put him in a good spot. But there are a lot of cabinet members who supported Eves, so there will be many to satisfy. Still, Galt should expect a promotion.

As a minister, Galt will be almost unstoppable when it comes time for an election – expected to take place next year, according to Eves. Sure, there are many twists of fate that could take place. But an anticipated move to the centre by the Tories, along with a less confrontational, more consultative approach could gel public support. We should expect a sound budget with more money for health and education. This would soften some of the harsher criticism the party faces. And with a year to set a new agenda and style, the public may move with the party. Any negative attaches by critics and the other political parties will be shirked off by saying it was the previous leadership, not the current one.

For Galt, these factors will work in his favor. A minister of the government will be hard to unseat as electoral history has proven. He has a strong team that is experienced and tough. He has also been successful in bringing numerous grants to the riding to help with all kinds of programs. His work on the new hospital in Cobourg will also be a huge feather in his cap.

For Northumberland’s provincial Liberals, who are in the midst of a candidate election, none of this is comforting. Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty has benefited from the neo-conservative agenda, giving him domination over the centre of the political spectrum. The Liberals went fishing for NDP supporters in the last election with its “unite against the right” campaign. That failed.

So where does that leave the Northumberland Liberals?

Certainly there will be a flourish of publicity during the candidate selection process. Carolyn Campbell will want an early nomination meeting to sew up her support rather than wait until later in anticipation of an election next year. Once Queen’s Park is sitting again, it will be tough to push a profile.

This is going to be a watershed for the provincial Liberals. Campbell raised a few peeps from the sidelines since the last election, but has done little, if anything, in terms of maintaining a significant presence. But Campbell is feisty and has proven she can take Galt on toe-to-toe. She lost by about 1,000 votes. But the landscape has changed significantly.

It is also true that most political associations become quite quiet between elections. And it must be recognized that candidate selection is not a public process, but an internal one for party members.

Still, the same faces keep appearing. Many of these people have spent years working in the trenches for the party. Isn’t it time for renewal? Those who have served long and well need to step aside to let a new generation come forward to offer the party a different face and a new team. Those who have toiled away deserve the party’s respect. However, voters need to connect with new people and new ideas.

And more than ever, this could apply to the NDP as well, who continue to feed voters a stream of rehashed candidates.

A reinvigorated alternative may be the only chance. Galt is stronger than ever and he is about to get what he deserves.

There is not much for Liberals to be celebrating following the weekend. The party faithful need to undertake some pretty serious soul searching prior to casting their votes. If they chose not to, then than can expect nothing less than disaster at the polls when the next election is called.

Meanwhile, they might want to start looking for alternative candidates with unique qualifications. A suggestion might be a man who ducks into phone booths and wears spandex tights with a large S on it; or, a woman with a large umbrella, flying through the air, who offers sugar to help the medicine go down.

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