John Milloy QP Briefing - January 5, 2018
"Political party infighting" might be the most boring phrase in the English language. For many, it's up there on the excitement scale with debates over the best brand of lawn seed or watching darts tournaments on TV.
Ontarians, however, might want to take a closer look at an internal fight within the Ontario Progressive Conservatives; not because of the substance of the dispute, but because of the unseemly tactics used by Conservative party brass to try to stifle it. Rather than directly engage disgruntled party members, PC officials used an underhanded legal strategy to try to muzzle those opposed to Patrick Brown's leadership and policies.
As Ontarians decide whether the Conservatives have what it takes to run Ontario, they might want to ask themselves about a party that believes this is the best way to settle political scores.
This is not simply the partisan ramblings of a former Liberal MPP. That the PCs used bullying tactics is a view supported by the findings of a Superior Court justice who recently offered the party a harsh rebuke for its actions.
The origins of the current dispute go back to Brown's attempts to move his party to the centre by embracing policies such as a carbon tax. Not everyone was pleased. PC party activist and Cambridge lawyer Jim Karahalios was so incensed that he started a campaign called Axe the Carbon Tax, sending emails to PC party members asking them whether they should trust Brown.
Things went from bad to worse as the PCs held several disputed nomination meetings. Despite allegations of fraudulent activity, Brown and the party executive refused to overturn the results.
This so angered Karahalios that he started a second campaign called Take Back our PC Party. Its purpose was to recruit enough PC party members to call a special general meeting to deal with both the questionable nominations and the carbon tax issue.
It was all eye-glazing stuff until the party responded. Rather than ignore Karahalios or try to co-opt him, Brown and his gang stripped him of his party membership and got all lawyered up. Accusing the Cambridge lawyer of inappropriately using confidential membership lists, they sought an injunction to prevent him from having further communication with party members and, in a bizarre twist, accused him of somehow making money from the lists.
Not so fast, said Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perrell. Using Ontario's anti-SLAPP law, he ruled against the PCs and in favour of Karahalios. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and it's not as boring as it sounds. It describes those with deep pockets who try to silence their opponents through bogus lawsuits.
The court ruled that this is exactly what the PC party had done. Finding that it had attempted to use "litigation as a means of limiting public interest," the judge rejected both the party's injunction as well as its claim that Karahalios had somehow enriched himself through his use of membership lists.
I remember being briefed on SLAPP cases when I was at Queen's Park. I was told that the tactic was often used by big companies engaging in unsound environmental practices. To stop protests, they used measures such as frivolous defamation suits to tie up their opponents, who would drop the case before it went to court. It's Erin Brockovitch stuff, I thought, never realizing that it could be used to protect a button-down conservative lawyer from Cambridge who doesn't like carbon taxes.
The whole thing might be humorous if it weren't so serious. Political parties are key to our democracy and pride themselves on being open and accessible. Sure, every party has a percentage of disgruntled members who monopolize the microphones at political conventions. In my experience, the usual approach is to let them say their piece, try to find some sort of middle ground and, regardless of the outcome, invite them to a hospitality suite for a cold beer.
There is something quite disturbing about using the legal system to try to shut them up.
Unfortunately, the PCs' use of the legal system to fight their political opponents is not an isolated case. It was the Conservatives, supported by the NDP, who begged the OPP to get involved in both the Sudbury byelection nomination dispute and the revelation that staffers in former premier Dalton McGuinty's office deleted emails. The fact that the judge threw out the Sudbury case and the email case appears to be slowly unravelling has not dissuaded the PCs. It was only a few weeks ago that they fired off a letter to the OPP asking them to investigate findings in the recent auditor general's report.
No one is suggesting that our elected officials should not have access to the police or courts but I think most would agree that it should only be a last resort, under the most extreme circumstances. The PCs failed to live up to this important standard – something for all Ontarians to consider.
John Milloy is currently serving as co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.
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