Deep in the back rooms of the Conservative campaign headquarters, Tim Hudak and a small team of advisers who developed the controversial Common Sense Revolution platform in 1995 for former premier Mike Harris are quietly preparing the groundwork to govern Ontario.
The team, chaired by Tom Long, known as the Pied Piper of neo-cons, was still hard at work this week despite fresh polls showing the Liberals under leader Kathleen Wynne slightly ahead of the Tories on the eve of Thursday’s provincial election.
In addition to Long, the transition team includes Paul Rhodes and Leslie Noble.
Once dubbed the “Whiz Kids” for devising the platform and campaign strategies for the Harris victories in 1995 and 1999, the trio is now preparing for the day when Hudak may become premier.
Among their tasks is to review recommendations for cabinet positions, screen applicants for political staff jobs and set up a timetable to roll out key parts of the campaign platform as fast as possible after Hudak is sworn in as premier.
Hudak recruited Long, Rhodes and Noble to work on his 2014 campaign after he suffered a humiliating loss in 2011 in a race he had been forecast to win. None of the trio was heavily involved in that campaign.
Working together, the three Harris-era strategists toughened up Hudak’s campaign platform, modelling it on the hard-right 1995 Common Sense Revolution campaign with promises to slash 100,000 government jobs, cut taxes, create one million jobs and a get-tough approach to unions.
One of their jobs is to set in motion Hudak’s “100-day plan” that would be launched the day after a Conservative victory.
If Hudak does win, the trio will be hailed as geniuses.
If he loses, they could be relegated to the political sidelines forever and their dreams of ever reviving the Common Sense Revolution will die once and for all.
In recent days, Wynne has stepped up her attacks on Hudak, portraying him as a Harris clone and dredging up memories of the Common Sense Revolution, which Liberals and NDPers blame for massive province-wide chaos in education, health and social services.
New governments normally appoint transition teams to help ease the way for a smooth shift in power after being formally sworn in.
If elected, Hudak is expected to formally announce his entire team makeup as soon as June 16. The full team is to be comprised of senior figures from both the public and private sectors, as well as his most-trusted advisers.
But it is Long, Rhodes and Noble who are the team’s key players.
Long, who now owns his own consulting firm, chaired the Harris campaigns in 1995 and 1999. In 2000, he ran for the national leadership of the Canadian Alliance, finishing a distant third.
It was Long who convinced Harris to adopt the Common Sense Revolution. He felt voters wanted a plain-speaking platform that let them know exactly where Harris stood on issues. After winning the 1995 election, Long continually pushed Harris to ignore vocal opposition and to adopt the platform quickly, which Harris did with gusto.
Rhodes was communications director for the Tories in the campaigns of 1995, 1999 and 2003 and was the main architect of the Common Sense Revolution. Like Long, he now operates his own consulting firm.
Noble is considered one of the top political strategists in Canada, but she’s also not a woman to cross, as many Tories have learned over the years. She co-chaired the 1995 and 1999 Harris campaigns and now is a principal at Strategy Corp., a Toronto-based consulting group.
Another Harris-era figure who can provide advice to Hudak is his wife Deb Hutton. She served as Harris’s director of issues management after he took power in 1995.
Under the trio’s tutelage, Hudak fully embraced the Common Sense Revolution’s mantra of tax cuts, smaller government, balanced budgets and anti-union legislation.
At the same time, Hudak has effectively sidelined nearly every member of the party’s Red Tory wing, a group that backed John Tory during his leadership from 2004 to 2009 and was devoted to former premier Bill Davis in the 1970s and early 1980s.
If Hudak loses Thursday’s election, these “progressive” Conservatives are sure to seek their revenge for being marginalized and ignored.
For Hudak, that could mean being forced to resign as leader.
For Long, Rhodes and Noble, all of them no longer “kids,” that could mean their counsel is never sought again.
For the Common Sense Revolution and its subsequent replica models, it could mean the end of the road, with future Tory leaders realizing Ontario voters don’t want to follow that path again and that even the mere mention of it still evokes anger and fear.
But if Hudak defies the polls and wins the election, then the aging Whiz Kids will have been vindicated and their updated Common Sense Revolution validated — and they will be ready to govern Ontario.