Chris Selley: Four Ontario Liberals, and politics itself, go on trial

Premier Kathleen Wynne puts the brakes on tolls and pledges gas tax money to Toronto at press conference in Richmond Hill, Ont. on Friday January 27, 2017. Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Federal politicians seem to understand that the Mike Duffy affair impugned the whole system. But even Kathleen Wynne doesn’t seem embarrassed by her former deputy chief of staff facing charges.

With a festive Labour Day 2017 in the books, Ontario Liberal corruption trial season can finally get underway. Next week in Toronto, former premier Dalton McGuinty’s chief of staff, David Livingston, and his deputy, Laura Miller, will answer to criminal breach of trust charges: they allegedly tried to arrange the deletion of damaging emails relating to the Liberals’ gas plant fiasco. And on Thursday in Sudbury, Pat Sorbara, current Premier Kathleen Wynne’s former deputy chief of staff, along with Nickel City Liberal bagman Gerry Lougheed, will answer to Election Act charges that essentially amount to bribery: they allegedly tried to coax prospective by-election candidate Andrew Olivier into standing down quietly with the promise of an appointment or job.

Two trials at once isn’t a great smell for any government. The prospect of Wynne testifying in Sudbury, along with Glenn Thibeault — the party’s preferred by-election candidate, and now the province’s Energy Minister — makes it even more pungent. And some of the sad-sack defenses Liberal partisans are offering suggests it ought to be more than just two men and two women facing trial.

Laura Miller and David Livingston — who served as deputy chief of staff and chief of staff to Dalton McGuinty.

“Even if Livingston and Miller had tried to scrub the emails, they couldn’t have because they’re backed up off site.” (Surely the breach of trust is in the attempt, not the successful completion.) “It can’t have been bribery because Olivier had already been denied the nomination.” (So Lougheed and Sorbara were peddling him career opportunities for … no reason?) “It’s just politics.” (Do y’all not think you should do something about that?”)

Itu2019s reminiscent of the Mike Duffy affair: partisans hope weu2019ll read ‘not illegal’ as ‘virtuous’

In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the Mike Duffy affair: partisans hope we’ll read “not illegal” as “virtuous.” “The rules did not forbid Senator Duffy from calling his Prince Edward Island cottage his permanent residence, though it clearly was not, or from claiming expenses as if it were.” (True. It’s still incredibly unethical.) “When Nigel Wright cut the Old Duff a $50,000 cheque, why, he was just trying to make the treasury whole!” (Goodness, why did he not boast of this virtuous act?) Even Justice Charles Vaillancourt got into it in his acquittal, concluding the PMO made it clear to Duffy he must “do as he was told or face the consequences.” (The “consequences” were, essentially, being thrown under the party bus. There is no human right to not end up under a party bus.)

Premier Kathleen Wynne and Andrew Olivier before she decided to dump him as a candidate in favour of a former NDP MP. Facebook

The Ontario trials are different in many other ways, of course — some of them quite interesting.

Duffy’s $8-million lawsuit against the government, his lawyer’s tales of a virtuous man “threatened, cajoled, arm-twisted and rebuked” until he finally “capitulated” in an Edwardian swoon, make him a popular villain. But the Clusterduff brought several people and institutions into more disrepute than Duffy himself: the Conservatives, for brushing away Duffy’s inquiries as to his eligibility to serve P.E.I. in the first place, then trying to cover up the fallout; every Senator who voted to expel Duffy from the Upper Chamber, knowing full well he genuinely hadn’t broken the rules (on account of their barely existing, but still); and the RCMP for somehow managing to prosecute the recipient of an alleged bribe from an emissary of the PMO but not its provider. It impugned whole entrenched systems of operation including the Senate and, via the Senate, federal politics as a whole — and what’s more, federal politics’ denizens seemed to realize it. Rules were hastily rewritten. Everyone clearly wanted Duffy to go away; he wouldn’t; they couldn’t make him; the collective nightmare continues.

Some eyes widened last year when former British Columbia premier Christy Clark hired Miller, the alleged email-deletion conspirator, as her campaign chair. Innocent until proven guilty is a wonderful concept, but it doesn’t often hold much currency in politics. Could Clark really not find anyone qualified for the job who wasn’t facing criminal charges?