Suddenly, Doug Ford thinks everything was hunky-dory with his party’s handling of candidate nominations, back when Patrick Brown was leader.
For more than two months, after winning the vote to take the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ helm, Mr. Ford had no qualms about revisiting contentious local votes deemed above board under Mr. Brown. Four Greater Toronto Area nominations where there had been complaints of voting irregularities were overturned; a fifth, in Hamilton, was redone.
Then, on Thursday, the PCs found themselves facing allegations from Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals that yet another nomination had been tainted by improper sign-up of new party members and possibly intimidation of an opponent of the eventual winner. But this time, per Mr. Ford, it was ancient history. The complaints had gone through an “appeals process” when Mr. Brown was leader and been “dismissed.” What was he supposed to do now?
Possibly not coincidental to his newfound faith in his party’s previous ethical standards is that this time, Mr. Ford is the one alleged to have done the rule-breaking, for his preferred candidate in a part of Toronto where he loomed large long before becoming leader.
For any Ontarians who hoped the Tories would seize the opportunity of Mr. Brown’s ignominious exit to find a solution to what ails them culturally, and what many Canadian parties put up with to varying degrees, it’s time to be disappointed. It increasingly appears that given an opportunity to find a solution, the PCs instead turned to someone who is part of the problem.
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Just how big a part of the problem is debatable. The more disturbing allegation against him – that he followed home Pina Martino, a nomination rival of Kinga Surma in Etobicoke Centre, to send a message – is based solely on an e-mail complaint by Ms. Martino, and Mr. Ford flatly denies it.
The one that is harder to dispute because of an audio recording – that Mr. Ford wandered into a Tim Hortons with Ms. Surma, asking patrons to put their names on membership forms and implying their fees would be covered – is dismissed by some political veterans as common practice.
But that dismissal speaks to the problem at hand. It violates party rules to pay for other people’s memberships. If someone was paying fees in bulk and did not declare it, he or she may also have violated electoral law. That it’s habit in parties’ internal campaigns − nominations and leaderships both − does not make it okay. Accepting that rules are made to be broken can ultimately lead to the anything-goes madness – people unaware their names are on membership lists at all, fake proof of residence provided to others impersonating them – reported to have happened when Mr. Brown was leader.
A leadership candidate coming in with clean hands could have recognized the chance to build a party more accountable to those who care deeply about it and better protected from bad actors. In fact, one candidate in the PCs’ contest to replace Mr. Brown seemed to do that. Caroline Mulroney, who despite her last name had never been deep in the trenches, promised a series of party reforms aimed at raising the bar: better vetting of nomination candidates and stronger oversight of local contests, new guidelines for party expenses, the appointment of an ethics adviser.
After Ms. Mulroney finished in third, Mr. Ford could have adopted those promises. He could also have announced some sort of party commission to examine what had gone wrong under Mr. Brown and proposed new policies to prevent it from ever happening again, signalling that while he needed to focus on making his case to voters before the June 7 election, he wouldn’t gloss over what came before.
Maybe if he had done that, it would be enough cover for him or his party to now claim that when he helped Ms. Surma he only played the game the way everyone else did, but would set a higher bar going forward. Instead, he is left hoping most voters don’t much care about parties’ internal workings.
Maybe that’s true. And if Ontarians do care, it’s not as though their other options are totally pure. The Liberals are no strangers to rules being bent in nomination contests and their leader was implicated in a controversy involving vague enticements to an aspiring by-election candidate to quietly clear the way for a preferred one.
But the surge by Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats, in the PCs’ race to lose, may not be unrelated.
If partly by virtue of rarely being near power, the Ontario NDP is comparatively light on ethical baggage, which helps Ms. Horwath’s case about offering a break from politics as usual. That’s supposed to be Mr. Ford’s appeal as well, but it sure didn’t look that way on Thursday, as he took refuge in his predecessor’s process.