Little things sometimes reveal the big picture. Consider this nugget from Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake’s report into the Ford government’s attempted hiring of Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
On the morning of Aug. 17, 2018, then-secretary to the cabinet Steve Orsini – the province’s senior public servant – sent an e-mail to the deputy minister of finance. The subject line: “Urgent: Ron Taverner.”
The Finance Ministry was responsible for the new Ontario Cannabis Store, or OCS, and Mr. Orsini was writing to ask that the OCS create an executive job for Supt. Taverner. The suggested job title was “President of Community Affairs”; the suggested salary was $270,000, plus 10-per-cent bonus pay. Mr. Orsini also told Finance to make the offer to Supt. Taverner immediately – by noon that very day.
Why the extreme urgency to hire a septuagenarian cop who just happened to be an old friend from the old neighbourhood of Ontario Premier Doug Ford? Why not go through a normal search process?
According to Mr. Orsini, he earlier on the morning of Aug. 17 received a phone call from Dean French, the Premier’s chief of staff. Mr. French, Mr. Orsini says, asked him to get the OCS to hire Supt. Taverner. And the $270,000 salary? The figure was on a “handwritten yellow note,” which the Premier’s office helpfully walked over to Mr. Orsini’s assistant.
No, this is not how democratic, accountable, rule-of-law Canadian government is supposed to work.
Supt. Taverner ended up declining the OCS job offer. But just after he did so, the chief of the OPP suddenly retired. The bureaucracy swung into action to begin a search for a new head of the force.
The Ford government meddled in that hiring process, too, including changing the job requirements to produce the desired result: the appointment of Supt. Taverner as the province’s top officer. (Earlier this month, after months of controversy, Supt. Taverner decided to step aside.)
The Integrity Commissioner’s report, released Wednesday, concludes that, in all of this, Mr. Ford did not break the law known as the Members’ Integrity Act. Mr. Wake reaches this finding despite overwhelming evidence that the Premier’s people had their fingers deep into the cake, and got icing all over their bibs.
Nevertheless, Mr. Wake’s conclusion has a certain logic to it. Mr. Ford has spent months denying any hand in the search process; denying that the choice of his crony was anything other than a coincidence; denying that rewriting the job qualifications to make Supt. Taverner eligible to apply was done at his behest; denying he’d been involved.
But at one point in this stream of implausible denials, the Premier did say something revealing. In January, he strayed from his talking points and said that, truth be told, he could name anyone as head cop. “If I wanted to,” he said, pointing to a journalist, “I could appoint you OPP commissioner.”
The notion is pernicious. It is also true.
The Roman emperor Caligula once planned to make his favorite horse a consul. There was no question he had the power. It was his prerogative.
It’s not exactly a “For the People” argument – I’m the Premier and I’m entitled to my entitlements, including picking the OPP chief. But it’s not untrue. Strictly speaking, the law does not prevent Ontario’s premier from naming anyone he or she wants to run the OPP: a reporter, a horse, an underqualified 72-year-old crony from the block.
At the same time, however, Canadian government is based on traditions, customs and unwritten rules that everyone knows, even if they’re not on paper. There’s a reason the Ford government spent the past few months arguing that the process that chose Supt. Taverner was real, impartial and arms-length.
Legally speaking, the Premier had the power to name his underqualified friend as head of the police force that might one day be called on to investigate his government. But, according to tradition, custom and plain common sense, the Ford government could not do any such thing.
What should happen now? The Integrity Commissioner suggests that an independent and transparent process be put in place before choosing the next head of the OPP. The unwritten rules having broken down, written ones are needed. This fiasco can’t be repeated.