What Doug Ford could learn from one former prime minister about keeping caucus happy

By Steve Paikin - Published on November 26, 2018
Doug Ford, Brian Mulroney
Doug Ford’s caucus is reportedly far less harmonious than Brian Mulroney’s was. (Fred Chartrand/Chris Young/CP

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When it really comes down to it, there are just two ways to treat your caucus, whether you’re the premier or prime minister.

The smart way to do it is the way Brian Mulroney did during his tenure as prime minister, from 1984 to 1993. Nobody was better at massaging delicate egos, calling MPs on their birthdays, remembering the names of spouses and kids, or giving disgruntled Tories the right to say their piece behind closed doors during confidential caucus meetings.

As a result, even when his popularity rating plunged — at one point it “equalled the proportion of Americans who believed that Elvis Presley was alive and well,” according to author Peter C. Newman in The Secret Mulroney Tapes — the connection between Mulroney and his caucus was tight. (Lucien Bouchard, who bailed on the prime minister to champion Quebec sovereignty, was a notable exception to that rule.)

Compare that to the way Ontario’s Progressive Conservative caucus has reportedly been operating. Party insiders and backbenchers tell me that the premier’s office has a different way of doing business.

Whereas caucus meetings can serve as a venue for MPPs to express their policy concerns or share intelligence they’ve gathered in their ridings, I’m told that PC members are openly criticized — even humiliated — in front of their colleagues if they don’t demonstrate sufficient loyalty to “the team.”

Leaders who feel secure in their position understand, as Mulroney did, that a harmonious caucus can be a huge asset. An angry, browbeaten caucus can transform private unhappiness into public dissent — or even mutiny. And we’re starting to see the first signs of that unhappiness in the current PC caucus.

The Toronto Star reported last week that as many as seven Tory MPPs have been considering defecting to the Liberals, in part because of how poorly members of the premier’s staff have treated them. At the risk of stating the obvious: if Doug Ford doesn’t demonstrate a deft touch in dealing with his caucus, then MPPs will start to look out for themselves.

The first Tory backbencher to go public with her concerns was Amanda Simard, the rookie MPP for Glengarry–Prescott–Russell, in eastern Ontario. Her francophone-majority riding has gone Liberal in every election since its creation, in 1999, and Simard knows she won’t stand a chance of holding it four years from now if her party is seen to be anti-French. The government’s elimination of the French-language-services commissioner and scrapping of a planned francophone university cannot have helped matters.

There are undoubtedly other Tory MPPs in traditionally Liberal ridings who are feeling the heat. But they may well be unprepared to defend government policy blindly — especially when some of the policies that the PCs are now advancing were not policies on which those MPPs ran for election.

Much ink has been spilled on the premier’s controversial chief of staff, Dean French. Longtime Tory activist John Casselman, who regularly e-blasts his views to anyone interested, has publicly called for French’s ouster: “It's time to fall on your political sword, or to be forced out in a more overt (and politically humiliating) way,” he wrote on Friday.

French is known to be a tough customer, especially when he thinks backbench MPPs aren’t demonstrating adequate fealty to the premier, particularly during question period. Casselman made reference to that in a Saturday email to his subscribers: “This Dean-ordered counting of both the energy and frequency of Caucus members’ claps has more to do with Dean's internal Macbeth syndrome (if you know the Shakespeare story) than it does healthy two-way political relationships. Wouldn't respectful two-way internal relationships be a breath of fresh air?”

Brian Mulroney inherited more than 100 seats when he became federal Progressive Conservative leader, in 1983. He led his party to an all-time-high 211 seats in the 1984 election. Arguably, more than half of caucus members owed their victories to him.

Doug Ford led his party to 76 seats in the 2018 election. But almost none of the victorious MPPs had backed Ford at the PC leadership convention in March. And it seems unlikey that many of those 76 MPPs would feel that they’d won their seats because of Ford: the Tories seemed poised to win no matter who their leader was. And so the loyalty and sense of connection between leader and caucus just isn’t the same — which should give Ford even more reason to try to keep his caucus happy.

Brian Mulroney wrote the book on how to do caucus relations right. We’ll know in the days ahead whether Ford and French have bothered to read it.

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