Do you remember the cry from the Tory grassroots just a few short months ago?
It seemed as if wherever you turned, Progressive Conservative party members were furious that the leader’s office was interfering in the candidate nomination process. Patrick Brown was being accused of subverting local democracy and putting his thumb on the scale in favour of his preferred candidates.
While Brown and his team insisted they were doing nothing of the kind, the fact is, they were. And we have seen this over and over and over from every major political party through the years.
Now, the Tories have a new leader in Doug Ford — but it appears that he’s engaging in the same old shenanigans. After blasting his predecessor for interference, Ford did Brown one better (or worse, depending on your point of view), appointing 11 candidates to their nominations in one fell swoop this past weekend.
“I can assure you, moving forward, every single riding nomination is going to be 100 per cent transparent — no little games, no backroom deals, no favourites to the leader are going to be put in there,” Ford once said. “It’s going to be the best person wins.”
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Clearly, the new PC leader changed his mind.
And it wasn’t just Ford’s overruling the wishes of local electors that had so many Tories steamed. In some cases, it’s the choices Ford made that left them scratching their heads.
For example, in the riding of London West, Jake Skinner had spent two years signing up party members in hopes of winning the nomination to carry the PC banner into the June 7 election. But this week, radio host Andrew Lawton was simply appointed to fill the spot. Lawton had first expressed interest in running only two weeks ago.
“Frankly, I’m in a state of shock,” Skinner tweeted. “I’m deeply disappointed for our members.”
Lawton said he was prepared to contest the nomination but obviously was happy to take the appointment. He’s a good guy who has bravely spoken about his struggles with mental health. He has done much to reduce the stigma around that issue and deserves praise for it.
But for Skinner and his supporters, that’s hardly the point. “That the party would bypass a nomination meeting and appoint a candidate who declared his nomination candidacy only 10 days ago is clearly disrespectful to our grassroots members and represents a brazen abuse of power,” Skinner tweeted. “Rest assured, we will be taking action.”
In fact, the appointment leaves Ford open to a legal challenge, which the last line of Skinner’s tweet suggests might be coming.
That’s ironic, because Ford says he made the 11 appointments to get the nomination battles over and done with since the election is almost upon us.
“When we took over, we had to fill 28 ridings, and the runway is running short right now. There’s no one who hates appointing people more than I do,” he told reporters.
Other examples abound. In Brampton Centre, the PC riding association president Nick Gahunia had been signing up party members for a year in hopes of contesting the nomination there. The Ford-appointed provincial nominations committee disqualified Gahunia with no explanation, according to a source connected to Gahunia’s campaign.
In Barrie–Springwater–Oro–Medonte, MP Alex Nuttall was considering leaving his federal post to run for the nomination there — and he would likely have steamrolled his opponents, given his local popularity and his potential capacity to sign up hundreds of new members. But a source in the PC party tells me that Ford’s people made it clear that Nuttall’s candidacy wouldn’t be appreciated. That same message seems to have been sent to former Tory MPP Garfield Dunlop, who submitted papers to run for the nomination weeks ago but withdrew when the party gave him no response. Ford ultimately appointed Orillia-based lawyer Doug Downey instead. (Downey had lost a previous nomination battle against Jill Dunlop, Garfield’s daughter, in Simcoe North).
What do Gahunia, Nuttall, and Dunlop all have in common? They’re considered by sources within the party to be too close to Patrick Brown.
But it gets even stranger. After Nuttall took himself out of the race, Michael Tuck, a 42-year-old real-estate agent in Barrie, decided to contest the nomination for Barrie–Springwater–Oro–Medonte. He drove his application form all the way to PC headquarters in downtown Toronto, paid his $2,850, and got encouragement from party president Jag Badwal. Tuck even voted for Ford for PC leader.
But this past weekend, he got a call from HQ saying that the nomination contest was off and that Downey’s appointment was on. Not only that: the party hoped Tuck would stand behind Downey, who doesn’t live in the riding.
“I’m not going to,” Tuck told me this morning. “We have a democratic process, and I don’t buy the excuse of not enough time and we’re running out of landing strip to land the plane. To take away our right to vote is undemocratic. It’s not fair.”
Tuck has resigned as the chief financial officer for Barrie–Springwater–Oro–Medonte. He exhaled deeply when I asked him whether he’d vote Tory in the June election.
“That’s a very tough question,” he said. “It’d be very difficult for me to vote for Doug Downey.”
I’ve heard two schools of thought on another appointment — that of former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s son, also named Mike. The younger Harris contested the Waterloo nomination but lost. Ford then appointed him to the nomination in Kitchener–Conestoga, ticking off some Tories there.
“Harris Jr. is getting a bit of a rough ride in the press,” a PC source with ample experience in the backrooms told me. “But I can tell you on the ground, people give him credit for putting his name forward and running in Waterloo. Yes, he obviously didn't win, but he fought it out and handled the loss with class and dignity.”
Let’s be frank about this: every party stacks nomination races to suit the preference of the leader. On some level, it’s understandable. The leader wants as many allies in his or her caucus as possible. Clearly, Ford wouldn’t want a caucus full of Patrick Brown supporters, which may still happen given how many current PC candidates were brought into politics by Brown. On some level, it’s smart self-preservation for a leader to have as many friends surrounding him as possible. Look what happened to Brown when it became apparent that he had almost no friends in caucus: he was deposed in a late-night conference call.
But then, can’t political leaders just dispense with the BS about “local democracy” and “respect for the grassroots”? Every leader talks a good game about that, but almost none of them actually follows those principles. The consequence is a further erosion of public trust in politics and politicians. In this case, some very disillusioned Tory supporters are now asking themselves who they’re going to vote for. They simply can’t support their own party, which in their view has so flagrantly abused the process and disrespected local democratic traditions.