Denley: Be wary of political leaders who follow the followers

From left, four contenders for the leadership of the Ontario PC Party, Monte McNaughton, Patrick Brown, Christine Elliott and Lisa MacLeod, look on as fellow candidate, Vic Fideli, speaks at a breakfast event at the Marconi Centre in Ottawa Saturday, November 15, 2014. Darren Brown / Ottawa Citizen

The five people pursuing the leadership of the Ontario PC Party disagree on some things, but they are pretty much united on one point: The last election was lost because Tim Hudak and his team of shadowy advisers ignored the wisdom of the party grassroots, and of their own candidates. It won’t happen again, they vow.

The only problem is, this revision of history both greatly understates the responsibility the members have for the direction their party has taken, and at the same time wrongly suggests that the real job of the members is to lead the party.

When Tim Hudak was elected party leader in 2009, he was chosen by the rank and file members of the party. They had other choices, but they picked Hudak. The party members had a chance for a do-over after the 2011 election loss, a loss partly created by many PCs’ failure to vote. They once again chose Hudak, with 78.7 per cent of the people attending the party convention voting for his leadership.

One of the reasons for that was because Hudak had done an extensive consultation with the grassroots. The main feedback was that the party had focused too much on attacking the Liberals and too little on why people should choose the PCs. It was a perfectly valid criticism, and Hudak responded with a clear conservative alternative and a lot less Liberal-bashing in this year’s election. Turned out that wasn’t right either, but party members shouldn’t have been too surprised at the direction.

The same goes for candidates. Some act now like the idea of reducing public sector jobs hit them like a surprise bolt of lightning on a clear day. Consider that they were running for a party that was promising to eliminate a $12.5 billion deficit in two years. Maybe there was some magical way to do that without reducing jobs, but it kind of feels unlikely.

The idea wasn’t well put, but although it had been, it would have received the same reaction from those affected.

I am no longer actively involved in politics, but my commentary over two elections was that the average candidate was not overly concerned with policy. Most are idea salesmen, not idea generators. Maybe they should rethink that approach.

I can’t recollect an Ontario political party ever having such an extensive and substantial policy exercise, generating discussion paper after discussion paper. There was plenty of opportunity for both candidates and party members to speak up if they didn’t like the direction.

Now, some leadership candidates say they’ll do it all in a different way. First, the shadowy advisers will be fired. That will be easy, because they are already gone. Then, a whole new way of approving the party platform will be put in place. Some say ideas should come from the grassroots members and will have to be approved by a broad group, with the leader but one vote among many.

In any party, there are lots of intelligent members with real expertise and good ideas, but it’s a stretch to think that the grassroots make up a unique repository of wisdom. The only barrier to entry is a $10 membership fee.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the greatest admiration for those who join any political party. While the general public are content to gripe, maybe not even vote, party members are willing to put their own time and money into making the province a better place. Without that, democracy as we are aware of it wouldn’t function.
That said, a leader’s job is to lead and the members’ job is to chose that leader, then follow.

The PC leadership contenders are naturally pitching their message to party members, since they are the ones who get to select. That can lead to a campaign where there is not any idea larger than how to adjust internal party mechanisms. The leadership candidates need to show how they’ll make their party appeal to the broader electorate, and win the next election.

The PCs don’t need to reinvent how political parties work, and they should be wary of leaders whose main promise is to follow their followers.

Randall Denley is a strategic communications consultant and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at [email protected]