The forces looking to make martyrs out of every single person who faces consequences for foolishness are probably already at work trying to make Roman Baber, the now-independent, formerly Tory MPP for York Centre, into the next saint of free speech. Baber was defenestrated from the Progressive Conservative caucus Friday morning after having released a letter, addressed to the premier, calling for an end to lockdowns — so he’ll undoubtedly be lauded by the conspiracist set. This would be a mistake on their part, but, then, if these people had any ability to navigate the world without making obvious errors, Baber would still be in the PC caucus.
Baber, a lawyer who won the York Centre seat from the Liberals in the 2018 election, had not particularly distinguished himself as an MPP and had a habit of getting attention for the wrong reasons. There was his heckling of former premier Kathleen Wynne, which was so egregious that even the Tory leadership tried to disavow it. Earlier in the pandemic, he advised a constituent that that he could “see [his] parents,” despite the risks to the elderly from COVID-19.
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The first time Baber appeared on my radar was probably during the ill-fated select committee the Tories convened at Queen’s Park to try to throw a show trial for former Liberal ministers — but especially Wynne. The day Wynne testified at the committee was only ever going to be antagonistic, but Baber’s performance was something else — as I noted at the time, he was so over the top that the chair of the committee (PC MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria) repeatedly told him to knock it off.
The select-committee episode wasn’t the PC party’s finest hour in government, but Sarkaria handled the dubious job of chairing that committee well, and now he’s a cabinet minister. Several other MPPs who at least took their jobs seriously that day are either in cabinet or have other substantial positions in the government. Wynne comported herself well, and, years later, even Doug Ford has respectful and kind words to say about the former premier — they are, after all, both members of what’s still a small political club.
Baber chose a different path: he played stupid games and won stupid prizes. And so his career in high-level politics is almost certainly over, at least for a while. Don’t feel too bad for him, though: he’ll get to collect a six-figure paycheque as an MPP until the next election, and, after that, there are always city councils and school boards (where, alas, the profoundly unserious can continue to have long careers further away from the media spotlight). And, if none of that pans out, he’s still a lawyer, though having seen the quality of his arguments, I would suggest that anyone looking for counsel shop around a bit more.
While he probably has friends in caucus who’ll regret his absence at the next meeting, at the higher levels of the Tory leadership, it’s hard to believe he’ll be missed: his primary skill seemed to be grabbing headlines the government came to regret, and his expulsion gives the Tories the opportunity to find someone better able to defend a seat the Liberals could mount a very serious challenge for in 2022.
This will all no doubt be unsatisfying for people who want to have an argument about free speech and who has the right to curtail it. But … do we really have to do this? Really? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that “don’t embarrass the premier with knucklehead stuff” is the kind of rule that political parties actually enforce pretty rigorously and consistently. Not every case is cause for lamenting the sorry state of free speech and the rise of “cancel culture.”
If there’s a novel point to make here, in fact, it might actually be the opposite. Too often, Canadian conservatives have given into wacky conspiracism and tribalism when the public needed them to be serious and reasonable. This isn’t an obscure part of the movement: on his way out the door, former CPC leader Andrew Scheer told conservatives to avoid the mainstream media and read the Post Millennial (an outlet notable for publishing work by imaginary authors) instead. The eruption last year over “the Great Reset” shows, sadly, that silliness didn’t end when Scheer left the leadership, even as Erin O’Toole tries to put distance between himself and such outlets as Rebel News.
It's not clear that Ford is out to build ideological guardrails for the conservative movement so that its supporters stop going off the deep end. Indeed, given how unseriously he has taken some parts of his job in the past (the gas-pump stickers are going to take a long time to live down), it’s easy to be skeptical. But Friday’s actions are what building guardrails looks like: a clear signal that some behaviour actually is beyond the pale — and a warning to his remaining MPPs not to test the limits.