When Premier Doug Ford announced that he wanted to install his friend Ron Taverner as head of the Ontario Provincial Police, howls of outrage ensued.
Yes, technically, the premier could select anyone he wanted to lead the OPP. As he himself pointed out to an interviewer on CP24 in January, “If I wanted to, I could appoint you OPP commissioner. It’s a political appointment.”
But the premier quickly learned that just because he could do something didn’t mean he ought to do that thing.
Critics raised a host of problems with the appointment, not the least of which was that the head of the OPP shouldn’t be a personal friend of the premier’s, because, at some point, the police may need to investigate the government, and that investigation has to pass the sniff test. Clearly, if the premier’s pal were heading the force, it would be next to impossible to convince the public that the chief wasn’t somehow trying to put his thumb on the scale of any given investigation.
Furthermore, it emerged that the criteria of the selection process had been changed to ensure that Taverner had a shot at a job for which he otherwise wouldn’t have been qualified. Even worse, the new deputy minister who helped select Taverner, Mario Di Tommaso, a former Toronto police commander, had served with Taverner for nearly 40 years.
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Ford consistently said he’d had nothing to do with Taverner’s appointment and that he’d had nothing to do with lowering the qualifications for the job. Maybe that’s true. There’s no smoking gun suggesting otherwise.
But the perception that the premier was trying to stack the deck in favour of his longtime friend was simply inescapable. The optics were terrible. And, in politics, when you’ve got terrible optics, you’ve got a problem. Just ask Justin Trudeau.
The Progressive Conservative government has run into opposition at almost every turn. That comes with the territory of making big decisions quickly, as this government has surely done. Universities and students are upset about the revenue cuts post-secondary institutions are facing. Francophones are furious about the cancellation of a planned French-language university and the elimination of the role of French Language Services Commissioner. Toronto city council was outraged when the government unilaterally cut its size in half mere weeks before election day. But the Ford government pressed on, imposed those changes, and seems to have gotten through them with relatively few scars.
What’s fascinating about the Taverner case is that, for the first time, the government decided not to go to the wall — it backed down in the face of overwhelming opposition to an appointment that, at the end of the day, even it couldn’t defend. (The appointment eventually went to Thomas Carrique of York Regional Police.) We may never know whether Taverner made the decision to withdraw his name from consideration or whether the government was simply unwilling to spend any more of its hard-earned political capital on an appointment that was causing them too much grief. And it’s worth mentioning that OPP deputy commissioner Brad Blair, who’d been critical of the Taverner appointment, was fired. (Blair alleges that his firing was retributive; the government denies this.) Regardless, the point is, even this government has a breaking point.
In our Westminster parliamentary system, majority governments are almost omnipotent, and the premier, as leader of the government, can theoretically have his way on any file he wants.
But if the Taverner case shows us anything, it’s that, even in a majority parliament, the opposition does have some tools at its disposal: it does have influence, even if that influence isn’t decisive.
Once, when he was meeting with his American counterpart, Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien pointed out that, because of the Westminster system, Canada’s prime minister is more powerful than America’s president. The PM wants a law passed? It gets passed. The American president wants a law passed? He needs to get permission from Congress. The PM wants to appoint a Supreme Court justice? He does it. The president wants to appoint one? He needs the Senate to confirm his choice. The PM has a problem with a backbencher? He can refuse to sign said backbencher’s nomination papers or toss him out of caucus altogether. The president? He simply has to live with the Congressional representatives from his own party he may not adore.
Yet the Taverner case shows that, even in our system, one in which the boss has almost unlimited power to express his will, there are limits.
Regardless of who’s in power, that’s a comforting thought.