In Hill+Knowlton Toronto’s Public Affairs Group, we eat, sleep, and breathe politics.

Email trails alternatively mock and praise – depending on your politics – the most minor of political decisions. Plans are made for team viewing parties of the latest political blockbuster. Caucus ‘Who’s who’ posters adorn cubicles like ‘Most Wanted’ lists at an OPP detachment.

It’s a special place.

That said, it should come as no surprise that three H+Kers made the trip to last weekend’s Ontario Progressive Conservative Annual General Meeting in Niagara Falls.

Senior Consultants Rob ‘Happy’ Gilmour and Patrick ‘Patrick’ Harris were deeply involved in the weekend’s program, with Patrick running the conference itself, and Rob assisting with one of the presidential leadership campaigns, even carrying bales of hay when called upon.

(Seriously. There’s a photo. And a lame joke about ‘bale-ups over bale-outs.’ But I digress.)

As the rookie on the team, my role was a little closer to the ground. Serving as a first-time delegate, my experience was similar to that of the other 1600 attendees. We participated in the policy and constitutional sessions, met delegates from other ridings, enjoyed the hospitality suites, and cast our ballots for the new PC Ontario Executive.

But if you’re reading this, you probably know the main storylines – Tim Hudak promised new policies and a return to his ‘true voice’, while the party elected Richard Ciano as its president – from the AGM. So, what can I add that you didn’t read about in The Toronto Star?

Well, here are a few things I picked up at my first political conference.

  • Leader Tim Hudak’s pledge to speak in his ‘true voice’ is a harbinger of things to come. Over this same weekend, the party membership cheered every mention of former Premier Mike Harris, and elected the architect of Rob Ford’s mayoral victory to the party presidency. So while the PC Party has thrown away its Changebook, these three acts (the ‘true voice’ pledge, longing applause for Harris, and the election of a Ford/national party loyalist) seem to forecast a rightward shift.
  • All weekend, there was animated debate regarding central vs. locally-driven campaigns, and this is an issue Ciano and the new party executive will need to address in the coming weeks and months, before putting a new campaign into play. With the majority of PC seats held in rural ridings, the issue of campaign coordination made it into a number of speeches and remarks. So, who will drive policy development between now and the next election? Will ridings be given a greater role in drafting policies that can speak to both Ontario, and to the grassroots? A motion put forward by party doyens – including presidential candidate John Snobelen – was passed to enshrine a presidential advisory group, composed of all of the riding presidents. Stay tuned, as this group may play a greater role in developing policy for ‘Changebook 2.0’
  • So, is an election coming? To this, I would submit a humble ‘no’. Richard Ciano will take some time to hone and craft the central party strategy for any coming election. He and his business partner, Nick Kouvalis, have proven themselves to be the northern incarnations of David Plouffe when it comes to data-driven political campaigns, and Ciano will need time to equip and train the Tory faithful with the tools they need to win any coming election. The policy shops will also need time to adapt to this new reality, crafting messaging and policies that – while true to the PC Party and its membership – will also allow them to capture key swing ridings that could bring the party back to power.

Leaving Niagara Falls, I had the sense that this was a party renewed and refreshed, ready to tackle the next session.

With the Drummond Report at hand, Ontario’s PC’s will have a chance to make hay – sorry Rob  – at the government’s expense, as the focus immediately shifts to a spring budget that the minority Liberals will require support to pass.

Mark Lawson is a member of the Public Affairs team, based in Toronto.