LONDON, Ont. - Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak dodged a political bullet Saturday as delegates at the party's policy convention in London quashed a motion that could have paved the way for another leadership vote.
Hudak, 45, has been under fire from a small group of disgruntled London Tories who want a leadership review, even though he handily earned another mandate from his party after losing the 2011 election.
Party rules require a vote after an election defeat, so the group tried — but failed — to amend the constitution so that a vote can be held at any time.
Hudak, his wife Deb Hutton and mentor Mike Harris, the former premier, stood up to cheer after the motion was defeated in a sea of delegates waving red "no" cards on the convention floor.
He laughed off the constitutional debate, calling it a "minor sideshow" to a party gathering that will help craft the Tories' next campaign platform.
"The big thing here to see is a party that's putting together its turnaround plan for the province of Ontario," he said, adding that he saw a "huge welling of support" for his leadership.
But Hudak didn't get off that easily during an impromptu question-and-answer period with delegates before the constitutional debate began.
He took some tough questions about his image, including why his approval ratings aren't improving after four years as leader.
"Polls go up and down, and I learned the hard way not to put a lot of faith in polls," he said. "A leader doesn't follow the polls. A leader leads and the polls follow him."
Hudak said he's reaching out to voters directly while travelling the province, "talking from the heart" about his vision for the province.
"So not so much saying what the other guys are doing wrong, but saying more and more about what we're going to do to get Ontario back on its feet," he said.
But it's unclear whether outcome of Saturday's vote will be enough to quell internal dissent about his leadership.
Arn Brown, one of the 10 Tories who brought forward the constitutional amendment, acknowledged there was very little chance it would pass.
It was "fraught with all sorts of divisiveness and bias," but really stemmed by the frustration of dissenting voices within the rank-and-file to have their concerns heard, he told the crowd.
The amendment wouldn't pose much of a threat to the current leader anyway because the bar to trigger a leadership vote would be very high, he said.
"I'm putting forward the motion so that we have in place a process where your average member can bring forward their concern and know that it can be dealt with within the constitution, not go running to the press, not go badmouthing people in public, but rather have a civilized methodology to deal with their concern," Brown said.
Hudak has been under fire since the Tories won only one of five byelections in August — the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Lakeshore. The NDP nabbed London West and Windsor-Tecumseh, while the Liberals held on to Scarborough-Guildwood and Ottawa South.
Hudak boasted that the party had finally made a breakthrough in Toronto, which had shut them out for a decade. But the Tory losses in the other ridings — as well as Kitchener-Waterloo a year ago, which they'd held for 13 years — seemed to be the final straw for some Tories.
Adding to Hudak's troubles were the recent controversies surrounding two Tory caucus members. He stripped Peter Shurman of his finance critic job after he refused to pay back a housing allowance and demoted Randy Hillier after his email criticizing the party's support for a bill was leaked to the media.
Even though the vote went Hudak's way, there's still disarray within the party, said Liberal Steven Del Duca.
Calling the concerns of even a small group of Tory members "a sideshow" shows Hudak doesn't get it, he said.
"It's shows quite a bit of disrespect for your own party membership, but also quite a bit of disrespect for believing and encouraging democracy within one's own party," he said.
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