What do you do when the higher-ups have no impulse control, and no one has the will to stop them? That’s a bad situation to be in at the best of times; it’s even worse when you’re talking about a government that controls a budget of $160 billion in a province of 14 million people.
This week, it was reported that Premier Doug Ford’s top staff intervened to dismiss a new vice-president at Ontario Power Generation — the Crown corporation that owns much of the province’s electric power plants — before he’d even finished his first day on the job.
What was Alykhan Velshi’s supposed sin? Apparently, it’s that he previously worked for Patrick Brown, the former PC party leader who’s now mayor-elect of Brampton. Velshi will, it seems, be paid $500,000 to go away. One of Ford’s staff is alleged to have made the phone call, but there’s no suggestion that he wasn’t acting on the premier’s orders.
Before anyone could so much as question the government on that score, it made news with another vendetta: government house leader Todd Smith confirmed to reporters that the Tories are going to raise the threshold for recognized-party status from eight MPPs to 12. The threshold had been lowered from 12 after the 1999 election, when the legislature shrank; the Tories claim that they’re raising it again to reflect the larger number of MPPs from the last election.
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That wouldn’t be convincing even if it didn’t also have the effect of further marginalizing the Liberals, who are currently one seat away from recognized-party status. Under the current rules, they’d need to win only one byelection, woo just one disenchanted MPP from another party to their side. If the Tories raise the threshold, though, the Liberals will need to get lucky not once — but five times.
It’s true that Ontario’s threshold for recognized party status was 12 MPPs for a lot longer than it’s been eight. But there’s nothing special about 12 (even if it is, as Smith tried to argue, a “nice round number” that represents 10 per cent of the total house seats). Ontario’s threshold was already the second-highest of all the provinces, and if the Tories get their way — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — they will effectively be using their power to make sure that 1.1 million voters have less of a voice at Queen’s Park.
The move to further isolate the Liberals makes more sense as an attempt to “own the libs” than it does as a political strategy. The PCs may be telling themselves that doing so will help their chances in 2022, but four years is a long time in politics — and it’s anybody’s guess what voters will care about then. Tories have traditionally believed that their interests are best served when both the Liberals and NDP are competing for the same votes, thereby dividing the opposition and making possible a PC majority. It would be ironic if, by working the reduce the Liberals’ relevance still further, Ford succeed only in handing power to the NDP in 2022.
Consider again the case of Velshi. He worked for Brown, although he was not an early member of his team. Rather, he came to Queen’s Park after Brown had already won the Progressive Conservative leadership. He was no neophyte: he’d worked for Stephen Harper in the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as for federal cabinet ministers Jason Kenney and John Baird. He then helped Vic Fedeli (then interim PC leader) get the party through the leadership race after Brown’s career in provincial politics imploded — a race that Ford eventually won. Velshi’s only involvement in Ontario politics since then seems to have been limited to a few enthusiastic comments about the future of nuclear power under the new government.
It’s not as if there’s a general rule that says people who worked with Patrick Brown must be punished — if there were, nearly all of Ford’s cabinet ministers, and many of their staffers, would have been made to resign. So what message, exactly, does Velshi’s ouster from OPG send other members of his party, including those who came to Queen’s Park to work for the new government? How certain can any of them be that their bosses won’t suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the premier? And if faithfully serving some of the country’s most prominent conservatives doesn’t protect you from the vindictiveness of the premier’s office, what possibly could?
Whether they’re trying to punish Liberals or the “wrong” kind of Tory, it’s pretty clear that the government is letting its instinct for revenge overpower other considerations — including what’s best for their own party.