TORONTO - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives will set the ground rules Saturday for their upcoming leadership contest, which could help determine whether undecided potential candidates will finally take the plunge.
The party executive meeting is expected to lay out the timing of the race, spending limits and leadership entry fees. But the key issues appears to be whether it will be a short contest or a long one.
A leadership convention must be held within 18 months of the June 12 election, according to the Tory constitution. Some argue a new leader should be chosen quickly, while others say the election should be held as late as 2016, giving possible contenders a chance to look for support and test their fundraising abilities.
MPPs Lisa MacLeod, Vic Fedeli and Monte McNaughton, who are all mulling a bid, say next spring would be ideal.
There's no need to rush into it, given that there are four more years until the next provincial election and the party needs to heal after its fourth consecutive election defeat, said MacLeod.
"It gives the party an opportunity to rebuild, it gives an opportunity for those across the province who are considering running for the leadership to come out," she said.
It's also critical that the party have time to replenish its ranks, she added.
The Tory membership has dwindled to about 10,000, about a tenth of what it was before they lost government in 2003, she said. There were about 40,000 card-carrying members before the June 12 election.
The party has held 11 meetings across the province since the defeat to talk to its members, who vented their anger over an election platform that didn't include the ideas they'd spent months developing.
Instead, it contained a poison pill — a pledge to cut 100,000 jobs in the broader public sector as part of a larger plan to rid Ontario of a $12.5-billion deficit in two years. It ended up killing the party at the polls, reducing them to 28 seats in the 107-member legislature.
"They're irate, quite frankly," said McNaughton, who's embarking on his own province-wide tour on Sunday to meet with members and others who might consider joining the party.
Those meetings are just the beginning of a long healing process, Fedeli said. And the general consensus was that it should be a longer leadership race.
"Look, we've lost four elections in a row. Something's not resonating properly and who best to tell us than the membership?" he said.
"These are the men and women who bang in signs, knock on doors, make phone calls. Who best to ask but them? And we'd better listen to them."
A shorter race would benefit candidates who already have the machinery in place to hit the ground running. So far, only Christine Elliott has declared her intention to run and her supporters are pushing for a convention early next year.
"There is a diversity of opinions that have been expressed," said Elliott, who finished third in the 2009 leadership race. "But I trust that the executive will come forward with an appropriate time and I'm happy with whatever that time may be."
Most of the rank and file have turned the corner from being angry and frustrated with the party's defeat, she said. They see the next few years as an opportunity to do the work that needs to be done before the next provincial election.
"I would say there's a great degree of resiliency and optimism that's been demonstrated at these meetings now."
One of the questions the Tories will be grappling with is where they need to go in order to defeat the governing Liberals.
The right-of-centre approach — drastically cutting spending to get Ontario's fiscal house in order — didn't fare well under Tim Hudak, a foot soldier in former premier Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution. But the party also lost when John Tory, a member of the Red Tory dynasty, was at the helm.
McNaughton said it's not about ideology. The grassroots members need to be at the top of the party's organizational chart, rather than at the bottom.
"Clearly, the problems over the last 10 years ... the leadership and the campaign teams are setting policy, and the average, everyday PC party members are being ignored," he said.
"People are irate and its the biggest reason why we're not winning elections today."
The race may attract members of the federal party as well, such as Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and MP Patrick Brown.
Raitt hasn't confirmed that she's considering a bid, saying only that she'll continue to represent her constituents in Halton in any way she can.
Rod Phillips, former head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., has bowed out, saying he was encouraged to seek the leadership but decided to focus on his commitments, including chairman of the boards of Postmedia Network Inc. and the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.
Hudak sparked the race after he resigned as leader on July 2 in the wake of the party's crushing defeat.
© Coast Reporter