Walkom: Sudbury byelection scandal the least of Liberal sins

There are many reasons to vote against Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. The fact that she testified this week in a political bribery trial is not one of them.

Opposition politicians are having great fun with the trial of former top Wynne aide Pat Sorbara and Sudbury Liberal organizer Gerry Lougheed, both of whom face charges that they contravened Ontario’s Elections Act.

New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath calls it an “odious scandal.” Conservative Leader Patrick Brown says it shows just “how far this government has fallen.” We shall see how Justice Howard Borenstein, the trial judge, finally rules. But at first glance, this allegedly odious scandal seems pretty small beer.

The Liberals have done things that were far more odious – ranging from the gas plant scandals of Dalton McGuinty to Wynne’s privatization of Hydro One.

This one is just a typically tawdry nomination battle – the kind that all political parties face.

At base, it is a story of unrequited love. The Liberals were happy to field mortgage broker Andrew Olivier as their Sudbury candidate in the 2014 general election (which he lost). But when a politically more appealing candidate showed up ready to contest a byelection the next year, Olivier was given the heave-ho.

That politically more appealing candidate was Sudbury’s sitting federal MP Glenn Thibeault, a popular New Democrat willing to change parties.

Thibeault was considered a real catch. Among other things, his defection allowed the Liberals to claim bragging rights over the rival NDP.

Sorbara and Lougheed were given the job of telling Olivier that it was all over.

Whether their statements or promises constituted an offence is the central issue in the trial. Under Ontario election law, it is illegal to “give, procure 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.”

The defence argues that since Wynne, as Liberal Party leader, had the power to unilaterally appoint whichever candidates she wanted, there was no need to induce Olivier to do anything. Once Wynne chose Thibeault as Sudbury Liberal nominee, they say, Olivier was, by definition, out of the running.

The most interesting allegation, levelled against Sorbara alone, is that she committed bribery under the Elections Act by acceding to Thibeault’s demand that the Liberals hire, as paid campaign staff, two of his NDP workers.

What’s particularly interesting is that she was charged for agreeing to the demand but Thibeault, now provincial energy minister, was not charged for making it.

It is also worth noting that earlier this year the Crown quietly dropped its plan to charge Lougheed with the much more serous offence of criminal bribery.

No one has ever charged Wynne with anything. But she’s getting the heat anyway. Which is unfortunate since this is one area where the premier is arguably not at fault.

There is much not to like about the Ontario Liberals. Their austerity budgeting practices have left health care shortchanged. They have never fully delivered on their promises to fix long-term care. They have casually and for no good reason, privatized or quasi-privatized lucrative public enterprises, ranging from Hydro One to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

Their recent minimum-wage and labour law reforms, while welcome, carry the whiff of deathbed repentance. It is hard to believe that the Liberals are serious.

Yes, they have had scandals. The decision to set up ORNGE to operate Ontario’s public air ambulance service as a private enterprise was a scandal.

The decision to incur billions of dollars in penalties by cancelling contracts for privately owned, gas-fired electricity plants that never should have been built was an even bigger one.

By contrast, the Sudbury byelection imbroglio was just politics as usual. Messy, yes. And definitely unsavoury.

But if you need a reason to vote against Wynne’s Liberals, there are better ones at hand.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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