For good reason much of our attention has been drawn to the political drama playing out in Ottawa, drama that still continues despite the resignation of Bill Morneau. The stories are still continuing and doesn’t seem to be ready to stop anytime soon. But during COVID-19 most of the usual political dramas that we seen have flown under the radar, mostly because for a rare moment in time our political leaders were focused on the global pandemic wreaking havoc on society.
As things this week in Ottawa have shown us, that moment seems to have passed and those kinds of political machinations are floating back to the surface and discussions. But it turns out that the kind of political drama is not just returning to Parliament Hill. It’s now coming back to Queen’s Park, with a story surrounding the removal of now-former Conservative MPP Belinda Karahalios and a couple of events that have happened since her ousting from the PC caucus:
Well, this is interesting isn’t it? It turns out that the Progressive Conservative riding association in Karahalios’ riding of Cambridge didn’t care for Doug Ford’s booting of Karahalios for voting against his overreach last month regarding emergency powers. Last month she voted against Bill 195, stating that it took “away the legislature’s ability to vote on the use of extraordinary emergency powers on Ontarians for the next year.” She went on to state that “by transferring away the ability for Ontario MPPs to consider, debate, and vote on how emergency powers are used on Ontarians, Bill 195 essentially silences every single Ontario MPP on the most important issue facing our legislature today.”
Ironically, many Conservatives who rightly railed against Justin Trudeau’s attempt at similar overreach in the spring remained very quiet about Doug Ford’s actual overreach, but apparently not all of them. It turns out that the Cambridge riding association not only stood with the MPP they helped to elect, they decided to be vocal about it. That lead their executive to move to send an anti-Doug Ford flyer “to “every household” in Cambridge” and Doug Ford’s own riding. What might that have looked like? Well check this out below:
Wow folks, wow. That’s pretty scathing stuff and surely doesn’t pull any punches. It’s effectiveness with the general public isn’t helped by a quote from John Carpay. But that said, it’s striking to see both Carpay and the Ontario Nurses Association both quoted on the same page in support of the same issue. That’s a sight you’ve never seen and will likely never see again because as a Venn diagram of the issues where Mr. Carpay and the ONA align would show, it’s a small sliver of an intersection of circles.
That’s what Doug Ford’s inability to do deal with decent in his caucus brought, yet it didn’t stop there. In an attempt to squelch dissent within his party from party members, the party itself tried to silence the Cambridge riding association. According to the reporting, an organizer with the Ontario PC’s wrote the then-riding president with some pretty clear warnings, telling him “the PC Party expects the riding association to support the PC Party and PC Party activities” and “the PC Party will not accept a riding supporting the activities of other provincial political parties or independents.”
The board persisted with their actions and as a result, they found out that the party took the extraordinary action of de-registering the riding association with Elections Ontario. In all my years in party politics, I’ve never heard of a party going to the extreme length of deregistering a riding association to try to stop them from dissenting on anything. In fact, parties are usually doing everything they can to avoid their ridings associations being de-registered for many good reasons. But never, ever have I heard of a party actually going out of their way to deregister one.
In having done that, the Ontario PC’s installed a new riding president and the riding association was promptly re-registered. Tada!!! Imagine that as a way to silence a pesky group of members who don’t agree with the actions of the Dear Leader in Toronto. Imagine being the party activists on the ground who had the nerve to disagree with Doug Ford’s high-handed governing and for the sin of having a different view, they had their riding association de-registered, without their knowledge no less. Imagine the chilling effect that would have on other PC riding associations around the province and the message it sends them about what might happen to them if they dare to disagree with Dougie.
I know firsthand that it can be messy business for a central party to deal with their riding associations. I spent three years on the executive of the Ontario NDP and there were also situations where we had to deal with situations stemming from a riding disagreeing with a leader’s choices on this, that or the other thing. Was it a pain? Hell yes. Was it frustrating at times? Of course. But did we ever think to de-register them away as a way to “solve” the problem? Hell no. Not in a million years no. That’s because while dealing with those situations may have caused headaches and raised our collective blood pressure a fair bit, we knew that came with the position. That was vital part of the democratic process and those headaches were minor inconveniences that provided important outlets for democracy to be strong.
So when I saw that Doug Ford’s team actually took this step against a riding association, my jaw hit the floor. Seriously, how thin-skinned do you have to be to go so far to squelch such normal grumbling in a riding association? Sure going to the extent of printing that flyer and going on the offensive against your leader is a notch or two higher than normal, but I can easily see how that would be a natural result of a party being so inflexible or unwilling to respond to legitimate criticism. Political parties are by their nature collections of people who agree on some things but not on all things. They were never designed to be monolithic entities where everyone marches in perfect line to the same drumbeats. Yes, their members come together and but those differences aside much of the time, but that’s helped by having structures and outlets to voice those differences. Riding associations are a big part of that structure. They are supposed to represent their region within the party, not the other way around.
Yet that is what Doug Ford seems to be demanding here, going so far as to take action that most parties would simply be unwilling to do to ensure that obedience. While this story makes for a juicy secondary narrative in the current moment, it’s one that sends a strong warning to Conservative members across the province. A party will become what it’s members accept willingly, and if PC members across the province are willing to shrug at this episode, they should ask themselves how they’ll feel when their time in the barrel comes and their fellow members elsewhere shrug at their fate. Because once a leader takes an action like this, it normally doesn’t become the last time. That should startle many of us, not only about how this Premier runs his own party, but what it also says about his inability to accept decent overall.