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What went wrong for the Tories

Globe and Mail Update

The chances of the Progressive Conservatives retaining their hold on office in Ontario were in deep jeopardy long before Ernie Eves called the election on a warm, late-summer's day a month ago.

Judy Darcy clearly remembers sitting on the edge of her seat in a Toronto courtroom and thinking that opinion was crystallizing against the Common Sense Revolution that Mike Harris launched in 1995. It was April 19, 2002.

Ernie Eves had taken over from Mr. Harris as Premier just four days earlier and was seeking to portray himself as gentler and less dogmatic than his predecessor.

 In the court that day, Mr. Justice Arthur Gans was delivering an oral judgment on a challenge by two unions to the proposed sale of publicly owned Hydro One, the giant electricity transmission company. The unions had argued earlier that the plan to privatize the utility, which had been a surprise initiative by Mr. Harris in his last months as premier, was not legal.

 And, as Judge Gans talked that morning of the legacy of public power in Ontario, it became clear that he agreed. "We knew we were making history," said Ms. Darcy, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. "We knew if we could win this one, it would turn the tide."

 Other people will make other judgments about where the Conservatives ran into trouble. Some say that after an innovative first term in government, the Harris revolution simply ran out of steam.

 Others will say that the party shed its image as being a friend of the working stiff in 2001 when it introduced tax credits for parents sending their children to private, often expensive, schools.

But the Hydro One decision and its aftermath cast a particular spell on Mr. Eves just as he was trying to show Ontario that he was a leader. By the time the issue played out months later, there were few except the die-hard loyalists who would accept that judgment. Mr. Eves's first reaction to the court ruling was to say that his government would pass amending legislation to meet Judge Gans's objections.

 It's the sort of aggressive action that Ontarians had learned to expect from Mr. Harris but Mr. Eves didn't - or wouldn't - pull it off. Immediately after announcing his course of action, he told aides that he thought he had made a mistake.

 In the coming weeks, the Eves government tried all kinds of strategies to deal with the Hydro controversy. It raised - and quickly dropped - the notion of an income trust before suggesting that perhaps it could sell a minority interest in the utility.

 In the end, Bay Street turned a cold shoulder to that option, an appeal court upheld the original decision and Mr. Eves kept Hydro One in public hands. But his handling of the issue, combined with the diva-like behaviour of Hydro One's president, Eleanor Clitheroe, was a killer.

Still, the Tories might well have won re-election had they called a vote that summer; the polls showed they had closed what had been a sizable double-digit gap with the Liberals. But Mr. Eves, who often has trouble making key decisions, dithered.

 At the same time, electricity rates were shooting up as Ontario endured the hottest summer in 50 years. Even Tory MPPs joined in the chorus of protest.

 The opposition made the legislature a toxic place for the government and, once again, the polls showed the Liberals pulling in front. Mr. Eves's decision in November of 2002 to cap electricity rates at an artificially low level gave him a second chance. Earlier this year, the polls once again began to look favourable.

 The plan was to recall the legislature, deliver a Throne Speech that would foreshadow an election platform, introduce a budget and go to the people. It all went terribly awry. Fearful of facing opposition MPPs, Conservative strategists persuaded Mr. Eves to prorogue the legislature and to hand down the budget in an auto-parts plant in Brampton, Ont. The move was meant to look innovative, but it was widely proclaimed (even by many Conservatives) to be evasive, silly and an affront to tradition. The Eves government never really recovered from it.

 A few weeks later, at a go-cart track, the Tories unveiled a hard-right election platform that emphasized banning teachers' strikes and law-and-order issues - and sealed their fate. Mr. Eves, who had promised to provide a fresh approach after the Harris years, was now portrayed as someone who would continue along a well-worn path. Despite the hole they had dug for themselves, Conservatives thought that Mr. Eves's strong performance during the mid-August electricity blackout offered hope and persuaded the Premier it was time to go to the voters.

 Their confidence was bolstered by early campaign polls that showed a neck-and-neck race. The next week, however, was horrendous. Mr. Eves could not recall the cost of his party's election promises; a controversy arose about meat inspection; and an ill-advised Conservative memo portraying Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty as "an evil, reptilian kitten-eater from another planet" was sent to reporters.

 The memo in particular reinforced a growing sentiment among voters that television ads portraying Mr. McGuinty negatively were over the top. "They never really recovered from that," said David Docherty, a Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist. The ads were withdrawn days later. The Conservatives did have some success.

 They were able to frame the campaign around what they said was a need to continue the tax cuts that had been the hallmark of the Harris years. "It was so calculatedly put in place that it was actually offered up almost as a referendum," said John Wright, senior vice-president of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid. Mr. McGuinty offered no resistance to the strategy.

 Indeed, he based his campaign on the option of stopping further cuts and, instead, putting the money into social programs such as health and education. Yesterday's voting patterns suggest the Liberals were better judges of the electorate's mood and that Conservative generals were fighting the last war. Perhaps a Conservative re-election was never in the cards.

 A year ago, 56 per cent of voters said they thought it was time for a change in government. That figure has remained more or less constant since then. In the end, it was a number that Mr. Eves couldn't beat.

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