09/20/2013 09:46 EDT | Updated 11/20/2013 05:12 EST

Tim Hudak: Leadership Challenge Will Be 'Footnote' In Ontario PC History


LONDON, Ont. - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives will decide Saturday whether they want beleaguered party leader Tim Hudak to submit to another leadership review, but a party official says it won't cast a pall over the Tories as they prepare for the next election.

The proposal, raised by a small group of disgruntled Tories unhappy with Hudak's leadership, isn't divisive but "normal in a democratic party," said Tory president Richard Ciano.

The whole issue of internal infighting has been greatly exaggerated, he said Friday.

"You run an open and democratic party like ours that has a history of sometimes boisterous activism, of course you're going to get some people who are upset or disgruntled, or think things should be run another way than they are or differently and so on," said Ciano, who's leadership has also come under fire.

"I don't think we should be afraid of it or overly concerned about it, and I'm not."

Hudak has been shrugging off challenges to his leadership ahead of the Tory convention in London, Ont., saying it will amount to nothing more than "a footnote in the party's history."

The group of 10 Tories upset that the party took only one of five byelections last month want to amend the party's constitution so a leadership vote can be held at any time.

Hudak captured 78.7 per cent support in the mandatory review after the Tories lost the 2011 election, and said he doesn't need to face another one.

"Our PC party has been known from time to time to get together at conventions and we'll have our quarrels and then we unite, and we are a formidable force when it comes to campaigns and elections," he said recently.

The motion will be up for debate Saturday, after efforts to quash it failed when two caucus members openly said the party should listen to the concerns of its grassroots members. It requires the support of at least 66 per cent of the convention's delegates.

If passed, a vote would be triggered if a petition is signed by at least 25 per cent of the combined Tory MPPs, the party executive and riding association presidents in non-member held ridings, and at least half of them support a leadership review.

Hudak, who'll address the 900 delegates at noon Saturday before the debate, will have to persuade them to vote it down.

His supporters, including Debbie Jodoin, say now is not the time to be talking about a leadership vote, especially with Premier Kathleen Wynne threatening an election if the minority Liberals can't get bills passed in the legislature.

"It's a silly time to do this," she said.

Jodoin wants to make a "friendly amendment" to the motion, requiring that the same rules apply to Ciano, who she says is undermining Hudak because he wants his job.

If her amendment is ruled out of order, the feisty Ottawa delegate said she's got "something else up my sleeve," but wouldn't say what it was.

"I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak," she said.

Ciano said it's "completely false" that he's undermining Hudak and that they've worked well together since he became president in 2012, including slashing the party's debt down to $3 million from $6 million.

"It's just nonsense that there's any light or distance between us," he added. "We very rarely, if ever, have disagreed on things."

But the divide within the party is comedic fodder for the Liberals, who handed out a mock delegate kit Friday.

It included 11 large buttons, including one saying "Et tu Frank?" — a shot at Frank Klees, one of the two caucus members who supported debate on the leadership review.

The Liberal bag also included a "Draft Randy Hillier" button pinned to a pair of suspenders, the trademark of the Tory rebel who also supported the debate and was recently fired as labour critic.

There was also a "Survivor London" button, with the catch words: "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast," and a "Draft Shurman" pin showing the party's former finance critic wearing aviator goggles under the heading "a pilot project."

Hudak recently fired the Toronto-area MPP, who flies his own plane, for refusing to pay back a $20,000 housing allowance after moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake, even though Shurman didn't break any rules.

Apart from contentious leadership review motion, there are about two dozen policy ideas up for debate at the convention, including a proposal to lower personal tax rates and reduce the number of income tax brackets to ease the overall tax load. The Tories would pay for the tax cuts by reducing the number of tax credits that currently exist.

Conservative delegates will also consider a plan to allow Ontario stores to be licensed to sell beer and wine, create a mandatory financial literacy credit for all high school students, and crowd funding as a source of financing for ventures in Ontario.

Many of the resolutions were among the ideas Hudak and his party had already proposed in the white papers. But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll make it into the party's next campaign platform.

But the Liberals say Hudak is hiding his true, "horrible" agenda to eliminate 10,000 education jobs and make union membership optional, even though they're not on the agenda at the policy conference, said Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca.

Hudak is trying to present a kinder, gentler face at the convention so he can defeat the motion to change the Tories' constitution to allow for a review of his leadership, he said.

"You can't spend two years and devote all the time, energy and resources that Mr. Hudak and his team have done to create the kind of policies we've seen them release, and then say at the 11th hour ... 'We're not going to put that stuff in the window' so they can try to fool all of us," Del Duca said. "It's not going to work."

— with files from Keith Leslie in Toronto

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