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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Ontario Tories: On the Eves of destruction

By JOHN IBBITSON
Globe and Mail
Monday, Sep. 29, 2003

Ontario Tory organizers can be seen knocking back double martinis.A provincial cabinet minister who has enjoyed breathtaking margins of victory in his riding until now, thinks ''there's still a chance I could win this.'' At a campaign stop in London, Ont., the crowd is so small and dispirited they don't even bother to applaud when a gamely grinning Premier Ernie Eves steps off the leader's bus.

In conversations over the weekend, numerous Conservatives said they have known for more than a week that the election is lost. They are angry -- not at the Liberals, who appear poised to form a government, not even at the media, but at their own party leadership.

Now, in the last days of the campaign, a major schism within the campaign leadership has come to light, between the vaunted whiz kids who rode in to rescue Ernie Eves, and his more moderate advisers, who were never sure he needed rescuing in the first place.

It's important to remember that it has only been 18 months since the Tories held their leadership campaign, one that left the party divided between the defeated conservative wing of the party, led by the province's former finance minister Jim Flaherty, and the successful centrist alternative, led by Mr. Eves.

The conservatives were dismayed by the Premier's bungling, waffling administration; especially his decision to postpone tax cuts and to abandon deregulation of the electricity market. Some of them may well have concluded that the Conservatives deserved to lose the next election, if only to purge the party of the wets. Party strategist and Alliance leadership candidate Tom Long, for example, has largely sat out this campaign.

What baffled one Tory campaign worker, however, was Mr. Eves' subsequent decision to hand over his electoral fate to the very conservatives who so clearly distrusted him.

Most of these strategists, such as Jaime Watt, Leslie Noble and Paul Rhodes, had profited handsomely from their reputation for electoral wizardry and their intimate ties to the Mike Harris government. Most of them had gone on to six-figure jobs in the consulting sector.

Now, more out of duty than desire, they returned to do their best for Ernie Eves. In doing so, they marginalized and alienated those who had campaigned to make Mr. Eves leader in the first place, and who became increasingly convinced that the strategy of the aging whiz kids was disastrously wrong.

The whiz-kid brain trust identified three key issues they felt were certain to solidify the party's core vote and win back the suburban middle-class: exempting seniors from education property taxes, providing tax credits for parents with children in private schools, and letting homeowners deduct a portion of their mortgage interest from their income tax.

All that, combined with a dose of strongly negative campaigning against Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, was supposed to do the trick.

Most journalists, though uncertain about the viability of the Liberal election platform, were surprised by the divisiveness and opportunism of the Tory tax breaks. They lit into the Conservative platform with a vengeance. (The fact the Premier's office had already allowed the relationship with the Queen's Park press corps to degenerate to toxic levels hadn't helped.) Although few outsiders knew it, some of Mr. Eves's closest supporters inside the campaign team agreed.

Those advisers also despaired at the decision to go so heavily negative in attacking Mr. McGuinty. Their unease was mirrored by a public whose attitude toward the Premier was ambivalent at best. By the third week of the campaign, the polls were already heading south.

One Tory campaigner asked this question: What would have happened if his party had offered a major tax cut geared toward helping low-income Ontarians? What if the personal exemption had been raised so that no one paid tax on, say, the first $30,000 of income?

As finance minister, Ernie Eves was a strong supporter of building progressivity into his tax cuts, so such a measure would have been philosophically consistent, as well as politically popular. And it would have been a positive, unifying message to take to the public.

Mr. Eves chose differently.

It may be that there was nothing Ernie Eves and his strategists could have done. Maybe it was just time for a change.

Out in the ridings, and in the bars, however, Conservative campaigners are in anguish, and they know exactly whom to blame.



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