The engineer of the 2014 Kathleen Wynne majority government, the same person tasked with figuring out how to do it again, is now facing bribery charges under the Ontario Election Act. Pat Sorbara, along with Sudbury Liberal operative, Gerry Lougheed, were at the epicentre of the earthquake that shook Queen’s Park last week.
The Ontario Provincial Police announced last Tuesday they had charged Sorbara with two counts of bribery, and Lougheed with one count, after “a complex and unprecedented investigation” into the candidate nomination contest for the February, 2015, Sudbury byelection.
It is alleged, according to information reportedly sworn by the Ontario Provincial Police, that Lougheed and Sorbara dangled a job in front of Andrew Olivier, who ran and lost for the Liberals in the 2014 Ontario election, to not run. Sorbara faces an additional accusation of bribing then-federal New Democrat MP Glenn Thibeault to become a candidate. The allegations have not been proved in court.
But Thibeault would ultimately be appointed the Liberal candidate and win the byelection for the Grits. He was promoted to energy minister in June’s cabinet shuffle.
After she was charged last week, Sorbara stepped down from her roles as the Ontario Liberal Party’s CEO and campaign director, where she had been preparing for the 2018 election. Both she and Lougheed deny any wrongdoing, while Thibeault denies he was offered anything to run for the Liberals at all.
The initial reaction to the Sudbury byelection scandal from the chattering classes was that this is politics as usual – all parties do it after all. Then, the Premier’s documentary came out in October, 2015, and it appeared like the Sudbury issue was clearly weighing on her. The official line was that the Liberals were trying to help the young Olivier stay involved in the political process, but the problem is what it looks like.
Wynne’s non-verbal cues showed, to me, a Premier that looked like she knew they could have potentially gone too far. It appears that, perhaps the intent wasn’t so much to keep Olivier involved as it was to prevent a vote-split if Olivier decided to run as an independent. This would make the situation different than other inner-party squabbles. Olivier came close enough in the general election to potentially be damaging to Liberal hopes in Sudbury.
But this is what a tired and out-of-touch government looks like. It looks like a government that appears to think it can get away with skirting rules.
And then there’s the gas plants scandal. As noted in documents and by the auditor general, political staffers were involved in talks about cancelling the Oakville plant. There were also assurances TransCanada would be kept “whole” after a politically-motivated decision was made to kibosh a government-issued contract. This, along with the Sudbury byelection brouhaha, are examples of a party that may have become too comfortable in its position of government.
One can’t help but equate what is happening to the Wynne Liberals with what happened in Ottawa before the last federal election. The whole Mike Duffy expense scandal came about because the rules that were written were so inadequate that Senators could exploit the perks afforded to them. And while the law technically wasn’t broken, the spirit of the regulations was, tarnishing the reputation of other senators in the Chamber. Nigel Wright, former prime minister Stephen Harper‘s chief of staff, thought he could fix it and tried to make the problem go away by cutting a personal $90,000 cheque to the treasury. Everything might have been OK had everyone kept quiet. But of course that didn’t happen, and so, right through a federal election, the issue played out in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.
Just like in Ottawa, the downfall of the government at Queen’s Park may indeed have its face. Lougheed and Sorbara could be the new Duffy and Wright. With the characters now cast, a steady stream of questions will continue to be put to the Premier and ignored, which will only further erode the public’s trust in this embattled premier. It is still just shy of two years from an election, but time may indeed be running out for Wynne’s Liberals.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!