Christine Elliott took a rare break from politics last week after losing her bid to lead Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives into the next election. She was not pouting. It was an act of political maturity.
She was ensuring that the spotlight would focus only on the winner, Patrick Brown. She was giving the party a chance to heal after a divisive 10-month leadership race. She was signalling her willingness to stay in the background.
Elliott has always put the team first. Her concession speech after the PC leadership vote was classy. Her smile never faded. She went the extra mile, issuing a written statement: “I am confident that Progressive Conservatives will unite behind Patrick’s leadership,” she said. “Our party will restore Ontario’s place as the economic powerhouse of Canada.”
As a citizen of Ontario, I hope the MPP for Whitby-Oshawa will stay in politics at some level. She is smart, experienced and well-liked in the legislature. She has demonstrated that regardless of partisan loyalties, MPPs can work together on issues that matter to their constituents and their communities. She is a tireless champion of Ontarians with physical and mental disabilities, families facing hardship and kids with special needs. She is a role model for women trying to balance careers, family responsibilities and community engagement.
As an observer of political life, I hope Elliott steps off the treadmill, at least for a while. Since the death of her husband, long-serving federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, on April 9, 2014, she has never stopped running. She launched her bid for leadership of the Ontario PC party two months after his death saying “it’s something that Jim always wanted me to do.” She campaigned flat out for 10 months, sprinting to every part of the province. She secured the endorsements of 19 of her caucus colleagues and 23 federal Tories. She raised approximately $1 million.
According to the old rules of the game, Elliott should have won. But neither she nor her seasoned team of strategists realized — until it was too late — how much the rules had changed. Brown tapped into a source of leadership votes they hadn’t even considered: people with no affiliation to the party who were willing to pay $10 for a PC membership to back a candidate who promised them a voice.
Elliott must have known, heading into the May 9 leadership convention, that she faced almost certain defeat. But she never betrayed her feelings, never put a foot wrong, never let her supporters down.
Now she needs to step out of the fray, do all the things she didn’t have time to do on the road, deal with the emotions she pushed aside and think about what she wants to accomplish in the next phase of her life.
Continuing to serve her constituents in the legislature while helping Brown unite the party would be an estimable choice. It is what Elliott did six years ago after Tim Hudak beat her in the last leadership race. She would certainly be welcomed at Queen’s Park. She has the skills to heal divisions and build bridges and the contacts to introduce the new leader to what remains of the Big Blue Machine. As an MPP, she could concentrate on the priorities that matter to her.
But there are other paths a talented lawyer, a respected community leader, the mother of triplets and a red Tory could take. It has become clear in the past 12 years that moderates in the Bill Davis/ Hugh Segal/ Ernie Eves/ John Tory mould are not valued in today’s Ontario PC party. Elliott has always said her passion is making a difference in people’s lives.
She could do that by practising law part-time and devoting more energy to the causes she cares about: families facing physical and mental health challenges, kids with special needs and parents who have to provide for them after they are gone. She could let it be known in legal circles that she is open to a judicial appointment.
She could head a national non-profit organization. She could help other communities replicate the Whitby Abilities Centre for developmentally challenged individuals, a state-of-the-art facility that she and her husband conceived and raised funds to build. She could pass the mantle to her politically savvy 24-year-old son Galen who played a key role in her leadership campaign, served as executive assistant to former foreign affairs minister John Baird, and studied political science and international development at McGill.
Elliott doesn’t have to prove she is strong, loyal or resilient. She has done all that.