NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. - Tim Hudak will hang on to his job as leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, despite his party's defeat in last fall's provincial election.
The Opposition chief survived a leadership review by delegates at the Tory convention in Niagara Falls, receiving 78.7 per cent support of the 1,241 ballots that were cast.
Most observers expected the party to give the rookie leader a second chance, given the possibility of a snap election in a minority legislature.
There was no "magic number" for staying or going, Hudak said late Saturday after the results were announced.
"I'm blessed to lead the great Ontario PC Party and very humbled and honoured by the clear endorsement of my leadership tonight," he said.
His predecessor John Tory stayed on after receiving 66.9 per cent support following his disastrous 2007 election campaign. Premier Dalton McGuinty scored an 81 per cent approval rating following his first election loss as Liberal leader in 1999.
At the time, both Tory and McGuinty were under attack by angry factions of their respective parties. But there were no visible "dump Hudak" movement at this weekend's convention.
Hudak may have helped his cause with a mea culpa just before delegates headed to the voting booths, addressing the crowd in a frank speech designed to show he'd learned his lesson.
"The fact of the matter is that I, as your leader, did not give sufficient voice to a bold, conservative alternative," he told the crowd, which included former premiers Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and Bill Davis.
His central campaign team spent too much time on "secondary issues," it could have been "more courteous" and "respectful" to the local campaigns and it should have been "much better attuned" to the changing conditions on the ground, he acknowledged.
The party's Changebook platform, launched last May with great fanfare, was "more of a critique of the way things are, than a vision for the way things could be" in Ontario, he added.
And as Tory leader, Hudak admitted that he didn't "find his voice" during the campaign.
"Put another way, we ran a campaign designed not to lose — as opposed to running flat out to win," he said.
"We are not going to do that again. And I tell you, my team says we are not going to make that mistake again. This time, we're playing to win."
Hudak promised to turn over a new leaf and talk more positively about the Tories' plan for Ontario's future — how they'll bring jobs back to the province and reduce the province's massive debt.
But he offered no specifics on what that new "conservative alternative" would look like.
"I'm going to leave it at that," he said. "Party members are very clear that ... as opposed to a series of critiques of the government, they wanted to see something that fit together as a vision for where this province is going — to look at the big picture."
The Liberals were quick to paint Hudak's remarks as a sign their rivals were headed in a more aggressive and scary direction.
"The biggest mistake he made was not going far enough to the right? That’s something that troubles me," said Education Minister Laurel Broten.
"What did we see in the last campaign — we saw a homophobic flyer, we saw pitting Ontarians one against the other by attacking new Canadians. Why won’t he apologize? It’s because he’s not sorry."
The Tories were criticized during the campaign for pouncing on an Liberal promise to provide a tax credit for companies that hired new immigrants as an affirmative action program for "foreign workers," and distributing a campaign flyer that made inflammatory claims about sex education in schools that was branded as homophobic.
Despite the setbacks, the Conservatives nearly matched the Liberals in terms of the popular vote and expanded its seat count to 37 from the 25 they held when the election was called.
There was a long wait for the results of the leadership review, which came about three hours later than promised. Outgoing party president Ken Zeise said the ballot-counting took longer than expected and he ordered that the results not be announced until the delegates were all assembled again for dinner.
Next on the agenda is the election of a new president and party executive on Sunday. The presidential race is hotly contested, with three candidates vying for the job: former cabinet minister John Snobelen, party strategist Richard Ciano and former taxpayers' advocate Kevin Gaudet.
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