If only Premier Dalton McGuinty had been in as big a hurry to resolve the native land claim dispute in Caledonia as he was to rush Greg Sorbara back into his cabinet yesterday.
Perhaps local natives and townspeople would not have been at each other's throats on Monday after five weeks of increasing anger and frustration on both sides. But no one in Caledonia is as important to McGuinty as Sorbara, his right-hand man and most important political ally.
When innocent citizens have their lives disrupted due in large part to government inaction, which is what happened in Caledonia until this week's crisis, politicians like McGuinty lecture them about staying calm and being patient -- ad nauseam.
But when one of their own is caught in a situation they perceive to be unjust, which is how McGuinty regarded the circumstances Sorbara found himself in, well, then, they just can't act fast enough ... Can they?
Perhaps McGuinty was encouraged by yesterday’s editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, which concluded that “From the perspective of the law, Mr. Sorbara is as clean as wind-driven snow. At present, there is no legal reason why Mr. Sorbara should not be in cabinet.”
The Citizen’s editorial writers make a serviceable argument, but they miss the point. The standard they offer is a narrow, legalistic standard, not an ethical standard. An ethical standard was set by former premier Mike Harris, under whose regime several ministers stepped aside, before any direct wrongdoing had been proven (and as I recall, in all cases there was no wrongdoing proven). As opposition leader, McGuinty paid lip service to a similar standard, when he said that any minister under a cloud should step aside.
McGuinty failed the first test of that standard in early 2004, when it became public that Royal Group was being investigated by the RCMP, Ontario Securities Commission and Revenue Canada. Sorbara had known about the investigations for two months, but didn’t bother telling McGuinty. McGuinty refused to ask Sorbara to step aside. And McGuinty discarded the standard entirely when he refused to ask erstwhile transportation minister Harinder Takhar to step down earlier this year, even after he became the first cabinet minister in Ontario to be reprimanded by the Integrity Commissioner.
As an aside, it is odd that Takhar has been handed the newly-chiselled portfolio of Small Business (though in fairness, Joe Cordiano was probabably paying it little attention, what with his puttan-esque pursuit of automakers). One of Takhar’s main defences to his conduct with regard to his family company, the Chalmers Group, was that he was a mere investor, and had little to do with the day to day conduct of the business:
"I don’t go there very often…I only go there when I have to see my wife or when I have to have lunch with her. I never went there before. I was never actively involved in the business, ever."
--Christina Blizzard, Toronto Sun, June 12, 2005 (as quoted on page 2 of Commissioner Osborne’s report)
And how to describe McGuinty’s ethical standard today? Straight out of "Hogan’s Heroes":
"I'm not sure who among us here is under investigation for what. We just don't know those kinds of things," he [McGuinty] told reporters. (Toronto Star, today)
Contrast this with McGuinty’s conduct as opposition leader, when one of his MPPs, Claudette Boyer, was alleged to have been involved in the cover-up of a vehicle accident in 1999. At the time, McGuinty claimed that he had tried to find out whether she was being investigated. Today, when deciding who will oversee an $80-billion budget and manage over $100 billion in public debt, it’s “I see no-thing, I know no-thing!”
Both the Sun and the Star noted that it would have been prudent for McGuinty to at least wait out the 30-day appeal period that follows Friday’s ruling before returning Sorbara to cabinet. I guess McGuinty didn’t relish the prospect of four weeks of whining from Sorbara.
By moving before the appeal period is up, and ignoring the fact that Royal Group is still the subject of investigations by the RCMP, Ontario Securities Commission and Revenue Canada – not to mention a class-action lawsuit by the Canadian Commercial Workers Industry Pension Plan – McGuinty is gambling that there will be no major eruptions on this file before the general election of October 2007.
Sorbara’s court challenge of the RCMP’s warrants, and his public comments on the matter have no doubt ticked off RCMP investigators. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on 18 months of quiet.