The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario. Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Today, at their inaugural gathering in The Salon, the three strategists discuss Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose upcoming appeal of a conflict of interest court ruling that removes him from office, has implications for all levels of government:
Richard Mahoney: Let me start. Rob Ford is excellent entertainment, for starters. The gift that keeps on giving.
Rick Anderson: True enough, Richard. But governance is not about the entertainment value.
Anne McGrath: He is behaving true to form. Defiant.
Richard Mahoney: He sure is. And Rick is right - while this is entertaining, one of the
most important leadership posts in the country is in limbo. And it doesn't need to be. Ford shouldnever have behaved the way he did - he created this monster.
Rick Anderson: I guess that is an important part of this debate, Richard. Rob Ford created something, an apparent conflict of interest infraction, not of great scale, nor of personal benefit. But Rob Ford did not create this "monster," as you rightly term it. That job has been done by political opponents who have taken a bad piece of law, with too blunt a penalty, and grossly politicized this whole affair.
Anne McGrath: Ford's bluster masks the strategy - right wing populism and outrage. For that reason, he may just forego the appeal and opt to head straight to by-election.
Richard Mahoney: Possibly. But to return to Rick's point, I don't think we can hang this on his opponents, or a couple of them (he has several!) The mayor of the city refused to follow advice from officials on how to conduct himself in a conflict situation. They knew what the law said and advised him. He voted on whether he was in conflict. The law made need amending, but the conduct is what we need to judge. Ford thinks he is above it, defiant, to use Anne's term.
Rick Anderson: To me, participating in the debate over that censure vote was not a sin. Kind of middle ages to think that the accused in a trial must sit there mute while the witch-burners prattle on. Of course he should be allowed to explain and defend himself.
Anne McGrath: But to vote on it! It's rare that the defendant gets a vote in the jury. I'm glad that the stay was granted because I think he is his biggest enemy at the moment and I wouldn't be surprised to see some erstwhile allies make some distance with him and his antics. And while all this is going on a great city is in dire need of some attention and leadership.
Richard Mahoney: And that has implications for all levels of government, and millions of people who depend upon the Greater Toronto Area for their livelihood, given the importance of the Mayor of Toronto. And then, in the midst of this, Ford's officials reveal that we should not worry, Doug Ford can replace Rob if needed, and Rob Ford can run provincially for the Cons in Etobicoke. So no one will be without office for long. Ridiculous.
Rick Anderson: Thankfully, millions of people do not actually depend on the GTA for their livelihood. But your point about implications for other governments is a good one. If every time a provincial or federal minister found themselves in a situation like this - keeping in mind the small potatoes nature of it - the courts and enforced removal were the penalty, we'd be in a bad way. Look what's going on in London, Ontario now, or in Alberta. Or what went on in the sponsorship scandal. All far more serious than this.
Anne McGrath: It's partly about degree but this conflict is not a stand-alone. He has treated the mayoralty as a project to support very personal causes and has shown little interest in the role beyond that. Much of his support has been based on an anti-entitlement (anti-gravy train) wave that saw itself reflected in federal politics in Toronto too. However, he has now made this all about him and his entitlement to the mayoralty - his right to the mayor job.
Richard Mahoney: This does have implications for politics at the national level. Like it or not the "Ford Nation" is, or at least was, a potent political force. Until all this happened, their plan was to extend their impact to the provincial level, with Doug Ford running for the Conservatives in Ontario. And they played a significant role helping the federal Conservatives in the 2011 election, providing organizers, financial help, and certain experts in telephone contact. Will the Ford Nation continue to be a force?
Rick Anderson: I think it will, Richard, and I think the way the left is carrying on here assures that. There are a lot of people looking at this and saying "whatever Rob Ford's imperfections, this is not the way for his opponents to conduct politics." There is a sympathy vote for him in this, which is larger than the support he enjoys regarding the actual matter at hand.
Richard Mahoney: Wow. Rob Ford as victim? It is his conduct that got him into trouble. The law is the law. What he needs to do is to stop the soap opera that is the Rob Ford story and govern. What other Mayor behaves like this?
Anne McGrath: The opposite is also true. Those who voted for him, and against his opponent, did not vote for narrow self-interest of the type displayed by him. They did not vote against the interests of their city and they likely want great things for the city. I think he is losing the support of many who voted for him.
Rick Anderson: Yes, Anne, I think you are right... if there is a by-election, it will play out on three levels - referendum on Ford, referendum on this matter, referendum on Ford's opponents. Will be a complex debate. And perhaps valuable. One can hope.
Anne McGrath: Rob Ford can continue to bank that his particular brand of boisterous right wing populism will not be countered effectively. In a by-election with either a weak progressive candidate, or several progressive candidates he can hope to repeat the magic. I suspect, though, that there are many, even on the right, who are so disillusioned with his antics that they will be looking for an alternative. This may be the most fascinating political campaign in the country over the next few months!
You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:
Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson
Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne
Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney