Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ontario Reform Party: Not-So-Giant Killers?

Ontario Reform party targeting John Tory in by-election

After the Ontario Provincial election of 2007, Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory has been weighing his political options for more than a year.

In that election, Tory lost in his riding of Don Valley West. Now, more than a year later, Tory has decided to seek election in a by-election in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, a contest in which Premier Dalton McGuinty has (wisely) opted to delay in order for other parties to nominate candidates.

The Ontario Liberals -- who in 2005 contested the last by-election Tory won -- have yet to announce whether or not they'll contest this riding.

The Reform party of Ontario, however, has announced they'll be running a candidate against Tory. They just haven't announced who.

"We were going to run a candidate wherever John Tory was going run," announced Reform party leader Brad Harness.

That being said, one shouldn't underestimate the Reform party's desire to defeat Tory. Harness has referred to Tory as an "urbanite", and as a member of "the Canadian establishment, the moneyed establishment".

Certainly, there may be more to Harness' focus on defeating John Tory than simply that.

The Reform party of Ontario attempts to fuse Preston Manning's focus on populism with former Ontario Premier Mike Harris' fiscal conservatism. The official party doctrine appears to be a combination between Manning's "new Canada" and Harris' "common sense revolution".

Targeting John Tory is, similarly, a combination of two pages out of Preston Manning's old political playbook.

When the federal Reform party contested their first election in 1984, Manning himself attempted to defeat Clark in his riding of Yellowhead. Among the memorable events of that election was a horseback posse formed to confront Clark about his policies at the dedication of a railway museum in the riding -- a dedication that Clark wound up skipping.

The media stunt was staged complete with wanted posters accusing Clark of failing to represent the interests of his constituents.

The other strategy Harness is emulating here is in allowing a candidate nominated from within the riding to contest the by-election against Tory. Preston Manning did this when he declined to run in a 1989 by-election in Beaver River. Instead Deborah Grey -- the Reform party's first ever MP -- ran in that election and won.

It's hard to believe that Brad Harness didn't closely consider these two examples before making the decision to attempt to defeat Tory in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock.

The idea is clearly to try to establish himself as an anti-establishment figure, taking on the province's established political leaders while also establishing himself as a leader with deep faith in the grassroots of his party.

But considering the chilly reception the federal Reform party received in Ontario, it will be far more difficult for Harness to establish such credentials for himself in Ontario than it was for Preston Manning and the federal Reformers to do so in Alberta.

To make Harness' strategy further dubious is the fact that John Tory isn't nearly the political giant in Ontario that Joe Clark had established himself as in Alberta -- at least at the time. There's a difference between taking on a federal Minister and former Prime Minister and taking on a Progressive Conservative leader who can't even win his own seat.

In other words, John Tory isn't so giant, and the Ontario Reform party may not be able to 'kill' him.

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