Do we really want the Ontario Provincial Police enforcing good manners in our regional democracy?

Nov 3rd, 2016 | By | Category: In Brief

Patricia Sorbara (centre) at birthday party, September 2014.

The Ontario Provincial Police have now actually charged two Ontario Liberal Party workers — Patricia Sorbara in Toronto and Gerry Lougheed in Sudbury — with “bribery” under the provincial Elections Act, in connection with a political controversy surrounding a by-election in Sudbury almost two years ago.

My own reaction when I first heard the news was that the increasingly high-pressure political pathology at work in the 2016  “democracy-as-depicted-by-Hieronymus-Bosch” election next door is finally making its way across the unfortified border, north of  the Great Lakes.

(Almost as if someone wanted to underline the late 19th century judgment of Goldwin Smith,  the Oxford Regius Professor of History who retired to The Grange in Toronto : “Ontario is an American state of the Northern type.”)

The OPP charges on the Sudbury by-election especially reminded me of some compelling recent writing from the US conservative military historian and foreign-policy analyst, Max Boot :

Goldwin Smith and his dog in front of The Grange in Toronto, 1905. The Grange is now part of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“Trump’s apologists tried to claim that he wasn’t threatening to jail former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for being his political opponent but, rather, for supposed ‘felonies committed in office.’ But this is exactly the kind of thing that dictators always say; no one ever admits to jailing the opposition for political reasons. The essence of democracy is not to criminalize political differences.”

To also underline our traditional Canada-First identity, our case in Ontario is not a conventional matter of a government throwing its opposition in jail. It involves a more unique example of an opposition trying to throw the government in jail, through the good offices of the Ontario Provincial Police. (Analogous of course to the State Police, stateside, in the North of the USA.)

* * * *

Patricia Sorbara with Glenn Thibeault, winning Liberal candidate in 2015 Sudbury by-election.

Following my initial off-the-cuff reaction, I have now carefully read the carefully crafted Robert Benzie / Rob Ferguson report in the Toronto Star. (“Wynne adviser steps down after OPP charges related to Sudbury byelection … Patricia Sorbara, who was CEO and director of the 2018 Liberal campaign, and Grit activist Gerry Lougheed face Elections Act charges for alleged bribery during the Sudbury contest.”)

And I will certainly concede that the 2015 Sudbury by-election issue has not been an easy one for the OPP — and even that “ the OPP and prosecutors” have tried to avoid the most obvious potential infractions of Max Boot’s proposition that the “essence of democracy is not to criminalize political differences.”

As Benzie and Ferguson report : “Tuesday’s charges were a fallback for police and prosecutors who stayed more serious criminal counts of bribery against Lougheed in April and never charged Sorbara under the Criminal Code … Elections Act charges are in a lower, non-criminal category of violations known as provincial offences, where penalties include fines of up to $25,000 and maximum jail sentences of two years less a day.”

L-R: “Kelly-Lee Assinewe, co-ordinator of the Alternative School Program ; Justin Trudeau, Liberal MP, Papineau, Que.; Christina Kozeyah-Maiangowi, student, N'Swakamok Native Alternative School ; and Gerry Lougheed Jr., co-chair of the scholarship committee. Photo by Laurel Myers, Sudbury, May 2012.

I’d agree as well that the section of the Ontario Elections Act the OPP have felt obliged to try to interpret is not very helpful : “no person shall, directly or indirectly, give, procure or promise or agree to procure an office or employment to induce a person to become a candidate, refrain from becoming a candidate or withdraw his or her candidacy.”

This language may in fact too much appear to quasi-criminalize at least several different kinds of ordinary human behaviour traditionally associated with democratic politics in Ontario, and all other parts of Canada.

This behaviour is harmless to the public interest of the people of Ontario. It may in some cases even be essential to making our democratic politics work for the electorate’s larger public good .

In a letter resigning from her current Liberal Party position, Patricia Sorbara has written “to Liberal president Vince Borg” that she was “shocked by any suggestion that I have done anything wrong … I have served my entire career with integrity and a deep respect for the law.”

The OPP has many virtues. Monitoring the manners of democratically elected provincial politicians should not be one of them.

Nothing I have seen, watching this issue from the start, suggests that either Ms Sorbara or Mr. Lougheed have done anything that ought to be against any law “where penalties include fines of up to $25,000 and maximum jail sentences of two years less a day.” And if a court finally determines that they have violated the current language of the Elections Act, that only means the legislation ought to be changed.

To me the reaction of the opposition in the legislature just proves a related fiddling-while-Rome-burns pathology at work as well.  As Benzie and Ferguson report again : “opposition parties seized upon the controversy, which dominated the Legislature’s daily question period … NDP Leader Andrea Horwath demanded to know ‘who is the person who pulled the trigger when it came to asking for this alleged bribe to take place?’ … ‘What role did the premier play?’ thundered Horwath, whose party filed the original Elections Act complaint in December 2014 …  Progressive Conservatives also asked Wynne if she was involved.”

At some point someone ought to ask just how different all this really is from Donald Trump’s telling Hillary Clinton that if he were president she’d be in jail (even if his people later said that was just a joke too). After some encouragement from opposition supporters of my acquaintance, I’ve decided to appoint myself at least one such person.

“This tradition in the Legislative Chamber, known as a ‘paper slide’ sometimes takes place at the end of a parliamentary session. The papers tossed in the air represent the Bills that did not get passed into law during the session.” From the Legislative Assembly of Ontario website.

Of course there are differences of degree. But for my taste, in principle, what the OPP have done in charging Ms Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed with “bribery” comes a little too dangerously close to Max Boot’s warning about criminalizing political differences in a democracy.

Similarly, over the last number of years the opposition in an increasingly toxic Legislative Assembly of Ontario has become all too eager to appeal to the Ontario Provincial Police. It is a destructive inside-baseball tactic that has accomplished almost nothing seriously worthwhile. It takes attention away from the many important questions of real public policy that confront the people of Ontario today. And it is more and more the kind of thing that makes ordinary voters in many parts of North America lose faith in our democratic institutions.

Randall White is the author of a number of books on history and politics, including Ontario 1610–1985 : A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto, and spent a dozen years in the Ontario public service. For the subsequent three decades he worked as an independent policy consultant for a variety of private and public sector clients. He contributes to counterweights and the Ontario News Watch website today, and serves on the editorial advisory committee of the journal Ontario History. He also works away at his current book project, Children of the Global Village — Canada in the 21st Century : Tales about the history that matters.

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