Randy Hillier was all too accommodating when he recently invited reporters into his roomy office at Queen’s Park, “happy to entertain any and all questions.” The four-term MPP from eastern Ontario has always relished the role of the independent renegade, stemming from his roots as a rural land activist who dabbled in civil disobedience before he got into politics.
But now he is, quite literally, independent: booted from the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus for reasons that Mr. Hillier disputes, and bent on making significant noise on his way out.
While the role of independent MPP may be new, it’s not entirely unfamiliar.
“I have a high expectation that my party will conduct itself honourably, with integrity and honesty. I know that some people find that difficult,” Mr. Hillier, 61, said in a separate interview with The Globe and Mail.
“So, I can be a thorn.”
After being kicked out of caucus two weeks ago, Mr. Hillier has made assertions that caucus is being muzzled, forced into standing ovations and living a culture of “fear and intimidation” in Mr. Ford’s government. Mr. Hillier has also brought unspecified allegations of possible illegal lobbying by the Premier’s close friends and advisers to Ontario Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake’s office. He said he will meet again with the office this week.
Mr. Hillier won’t specify the allegations or who he is making them about, but adds, “I don’t lose very often." He has singled out the Premier’s chief of staff, Dean French and Chris Froggatt, the chair of Mr. Ford’s election-readiness committee as the “backroom operatives” responsible for his ouster. Mr. Froggatt runs a lobbying and strategic communications firm, but says he does not personally lobby the government.
“There’s ample evidence of incompetence," Mr. Hillier said of Mr. Ford’s team. For one, he cites the departure of another MPP from the PC caucus, Amanda Simard, who quit over the government’s handling of the franco-Ontarian file. Mr. Hillier is now in talks with the other independents − including seven Liberals, who don’t have official party status − over how to best co-ordinate their efforts in the legislature.
The Premier’s Office has labelled Mr. Hillier’s complaints as lies and said he was kicked out of caucus over poor attendance and criticism of the government among other things. He was initially suspended over comments allegedly directed to parents of children with autism, which Mr. Hillier denies.
“I kind of got along with the guy, but he was not a team player,” Mr. Ford told reporters last week. “You can’t miss work, you can’t not show up to caucus, you can’t not show up to events that we have. He’s a lone wolf.”
As for allegations involving lobbyists, the Premier said: “No one can influence Doug Ford. No one can buy Doug Ford. Impossible."
Mr. Hillier has clashed with many PC leaders, including Tim Hudak, who once stripped him of a critic role, and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who was found to have broken the province’s ethics rules after a complaint from Mr. Hillier. Mr. Brown told The Globe last week that Mr. Hillier is “very opinionated,” and represents “the hard-right in the Conservative movement.”
Mr. Hillier has painted a negative picture of life as a backbencher in the Ford government. He has been public in his criticism of Mr. French, whom he alleges is inappropriately involved in government affairs.
He questioned why Mr. French, an Etobicoke businessman not prominent in Conservative circles since working on Stockwell Day’s national campaign nearly two decades ago, is heading up Mr. Ford’s day-to-day operations.
“[Mr. Ford] obviously hasn’t been a student of parliamentary systems," Mr. Hillier said. “I would have thought that he would have hired somebody who would have buttressed those weaknesses and filled in those gaps. But he hires the campaign team who don’t know anything either.”
While he said he personally gets along with Mr. Ford, he is skeptical of the Premier’s public persona. Mr. Ford often cites he and his late brother Rob Ford’s personal touch in politics. “I think Doug has ridden Rob’s coattails," Mr. Hillier said.
Despite a show of support in Mr. Hillier’s riding, no one in the PC caucus has come out to defend him. But Mr. Hillier says he’s not hurt by the silence from his former colleagues, noting one’s status in politics is constantly in flux. “They know that I’m not a whack job," he said.