Tim Hudak was a solid choice for leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.
Like the vast majority of his caucus, Tim is an affable and malleable professional politician in tune with the pet peeves of small-c conservative small town and rural Ontario. This makes him a marked improvement in caucus relations over John Tory, whose aristocratic noblesse oblige was a throwback to the days of Lord Salisbury.
There was a clear improvement in the mechnical side of politics with Tim's selection as leader. For instance, the shot of the Opposition Leader in the House include three women in the background, showing some diversity in a mostly "old angry white guy" party. This is a smart move that demonstrates people are thinking things through.
Which makes what transpired yesterday all the more inexplicable.
The first day in the legislature as Opposition Leader is the equivalent of a free shot.
The "government under fire" is always the lede to any story on the first day of a new sitting. Reporters thrive on conflict, and Question Period provides an easy opportunity for contrast. The government can attempt to mitigate the damage with some news, like yesterday's new rules for lottery agents, but it's very hard to move the press off this simple storyline.
Add to that a new leader and articles like this practically write themselves.
Except all was not exactly rosy on the first day.
For starters, one third of Tim's team failed to circle the red letter day of his debut.
The Canadian Press notes:
"Hudak's debut as Opposition leader was overshadowed by the absence of a third of his 25-member caucus, a surprising turnout for the man many regard as the second coming of former premier Mike Harris.
Hudak defended the eight empty seats, saying some of his flock were "out and about" on committee business, but that he was still proud of the party's performance in the legislature."
The committee excuse doesn't hold water. Only three of his eight missing MPPs were on committee business. The Standing Committee on Public Accounts is this week in Edmonton, which explains Norm Sterling, Jerry Oullette and Ernie Hardeman. No other government committees are travelling.
That was only the most obvious problem with his first day.
More glaring was what didn't happen.
Tim Hudak has staked his reputation on getting Dalton McGuinty to backdown on the harmonized sales tax.
"We're going to put 100 per cent of our energies into stopping this tax in the first place," Hudak promised upon winning the leadership. "I'm not going to give any quarter to Dalton McGuinty on this."
Obviously, if Tim is giving 100 per cent to stopping the HST, he would ask his first question about the HST.
Or his second.
Or his third.
Actually, no Conservative mentioned the HST in the entire Question Period, although the NDP devoted two separate questions to the issue, including their first leader's question.
By ignoring an issue that was supposed to be Tim's singular concern only reinforces the growing impression that he is not serious in his opposition to the HST, but cynically stoking populist backlash with no intention of reversing the tax harmonization in government.
There could be good reason for this. The by-election in St. Paul's was framed by the Conservatives as a referendum on the HST, but sources say that isn't going so well. It looks as though Mr. Hudak may be beginning an embarrassing climb down from his pledge.
The overall tactical choices in the first Question Period were also off-key.
Instead of showcasing their new leader in contrast to the Premier, Mr. Hudak only asked two questions.
Also, the PCs devoted all of Question Period to the same issue of the process of an audit contract award to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Muck-racking is a key part of opposition politics. But mindless devotion to the same tiny sub-topic throughout QP doesn't convey seriousness or inspire coverage. It conveys repetitiveness and allows the government to skate away on the rest of their agenda.
Mr. Hudak has years to get ahead of the Liberal government at Queen's Park. But he didn't get off on the right foot on his first day.