Hudak abandons risky ‘right to work’ policy

Published Friday, Feb. 21 2014, 8:59 AM EST
Last updated Saturday, Feb. 22 2014, 12:19 AM EST

When the Ontario Progressive Conservatives embraced “right to work” policy nearly two years ago, it seemed a perfect fit. They were taking a rightward turn, and needed provocative ideas to grab voters’ attention and give supporters something meaty to vote for. Promising to kill the Rand Formula – which obliges people in unionized workplaces to pay union dues – would do just that. It was controversial but, according to one Tory source, tested well in focus groups.

Now, facing a possible general election in a few short months, the PCs have killed the idea. The move comes after internal dissent on the policy and amid signs from the governing Liberals and the NDP that they would use it as a wedge in the next campaign. For a party stung by previous election defeats defined in part by single, contentious policies – public funding for faith-based schools in 2007; the creation of chain gangs in 2011 – keeping right to work in the platform was deemed too risky.

In an effort to take the issue off the table once and for all before a campaign, Tory Leader Tim Hudak publicly abandoned it Friday. In a breakfast speech in Toronto’s financial district, he framed his about-face as pragmatic policy. Right to work, he said, simply would not affect enough people to be worthwhile.

“If we’re elected, we’re not going to do it. We won’t touch the Rand Formula,” he said. “Our agenda is a lot bigger, and a lot more ambitious than just that.”

Mr. Hudak’s decision carries risks: Supporters may see it as dithering, while his opponents accuse him of hiding his agenda.

“A lot of people are going to be wondering if there’s a hidden agenda, because we know this is something that he’s heavily invested in,” said NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson.

Added Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca: “It … speaks to someone who lacks a significant amount of authenticity.”

“He’s backing off because voters are saying ‘are you nuts?’ ” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union. “I don’t believe for a split second that he would back off if he was elected.”

The Tories’ research showed right to work was popular, said one insider, but the source confirmed the party feared a repeat of the faith-based schools and chain-gang scenarios. In those cases, the policies were cleared by market research, but flopped at election time. The source said the party decided right to work had not gained enough traction and it was better to focus on other platform planks.

Right to work has caused a messy internal dispute that burst into public view over the past month. Windsor-area Tory candidate Dave Brister spoke out against the policy on Twitter and criticized an MPP for supporting it; Mr. Hudak stripped him of his nomination. Then, a tape surfaced of MPP John O’Toole warning party faithful at a closed-door meeting that they would be “screwed” by right to work at election time, as it could galvanize emergency-services unions to campaign against the Tories. The issue suddenly became a major focus of media coverage of Mr. Hudak, taking attention away from other party policies.

The abandonment of right to work, however, does not mean the PCs will stop their push toward a bluer brand of Toryism. Instead, they will pick different battles.

In a recent by-election in working-class Niagara Falls, for instance, the party opted for a different line of anti-union rhetoric that claimed a New Democrat victory would hand big labour the keys to the Ontario legislature.

In his speech Friday, Mr. Hudak made clear he had not given up his conservative ideals. First, he blamed unions for artificially limiting the number of skilled tradespeople in the province. Then, he railed against using tax money to help big businesses expand in the province. And he bluntly signalled he was ready for a fight.

“The path won’t be easy, but we know where it lies,” he said. “I think Ontario’s ready to go there.”