There were times, during the strange saga involving bribery allegations against a pair of Ontario Liberal operatives, when it was possible to hope some greater good might come out of it.
It is little secret in political circles that the sort of thing Pat Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed did in Sudbury – trying to provide incentives to an aspiring Liberal candidate to step aside quietly, in favour of a preferred star candidate – is common within parties. And so, too, is all manner of other skulduggery in their nomination contests.
So perhaps after this particular case became public, courtesy of Andrew Olivier (the would-be candidate) releasing recordings of his conversations with the operatives, folks on all sides would see how their behaviour looked in the light of day. And maybe the Elections Act charges filed against Ms. Sorbara (Kathleen Wynne's campaign director) and Mr. Lougheed (a high-profile Sudbury Liberal) would set a useful precedent in setting limits for what parties can get away with.
Instead, by the time Justice Howard Borenstein acquitted the defendants on Tuesday for lack of evidence, without the defence having to present its case, it was clear the court proceedings had been a waste of time and resources. The parties, if anything, have been encouraged to conduct themselves exactly as they have to date. And rather than being given a little less cause to feel cynical about politics and government and public institutions, members of the public are liable to come away from it believing the system is rotten.
For all that, there is plenty of blame to go around – a good portion of it to the people who filed and prosecuted the charges.
After being called in by Elections Ontario, provincial police seemed to feel they could not emerge from their investigation empty-handed. First, they filed criminal charges against Mr. Lougheed; only after those were stayed did they come back with three less-severe Elections Act charges against him and Ms. Sorbara.
One of those, in which Ms. Sorbara was accused of bribing not Mr. Olivier but star candidate Glenn Thibeault, was patently ridiculous: It required believing that he was induced to give up his seat as a federal MP by the promise of a few thousand dollars in bridge salary for staff he wanted to keep. The other two, for allegedly inducing Mr. Olivier to abandon his Liberal nomination bid with vague promises of jobs or appointments, were ultimately dismissed on the basis that his candidacy was already effectively dead because Ms. Wynne had the power under her party's constitution to simply appoint Mr. Thibeault.
But while this outcome seemingly came as little surprise to those who watched the trial firsthand, and saw the Crown mount a very feeble case, it predictably fed suspicions outside the courtroom. People inclined to believe the worst about Ms. Wynne's government – which given her approval ratings is a lot of people – were just left to think the justice system had proved inadequate in stopping Liberal corruption.
Meanwhile, the way the authorities handled it seemed to leave the Liberals with a different but no less troubling takeaway: that their operatives had been exonerated not just legally (which they clearly were), but also ethically.
Had they only been tried in the court of public opinion, that might have been a more difficult conclusion to reach, since appearing to trample over a local candidate and trying to buy his complicity does look pretty gross to anyone outside the political trenches. But as Ms. Sorbara was reinstated to her party role mere hours after the verdict, Liberals were crowing about having been proved entirely within the bounds of acceptable political behaviour.
Deep down, the opposition Progressive Conservatives probably agreed with that assessment. Their own nomination processes, heading into the coming election, have been rife with complaints about dubiously engineered outcomes. But that didn't stop them from previously raising the trial's profile and stakes, by hypocritically implying the Liberals had done something uniquely terrible.
After the verdict had already come down, the Tories were still running a television ad in which their leader, Patrick Brown, indignantly tells viewers that one of Ms. Wynne's top officials is facing bribery charges.
Earlier, while the trial was still on, Mr. Brown said publicly that Ms. Wynne – testifying as a witness – was herself on trial. He has since refused to apologize, and the Premier has filed a libel notice.
No matter how much cause this case has given Ontarians to view the political class with scorn, in other words, it may not be done yet.
Liberals and Tories alike could reflect on that; on whether there are higher standards to which they could hold themselves, regardless of what the law says. They'll be too busy going about business as usual, and feigning horror when the other side does likewise.