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      Sudbury By Election: Liberal "Bribery"?

       Or Just Normal Political Negotiations?

 

By Randall White

Somewhere I read that the ultimate Liberal winner of the 2015 Sudbury by election, Glenn Thibeault, lost 14 pounds during the campaign. And that seemed to summarize a rare Ontario political happening.  

Like others, I have found much of what has happened dispiriting. The Sudbury by election has touched on worrisome trends in our regional parliamentary democracy today.

It also seems a fact of life that different people react differently to events of this sort.

In my own case I am not dispirited by the 41% of the Sudbury electorate who voted for Glenn Thibeault — even though a detective in the OPP’s anti-rackets branch alleged in a technical document to obtain evidence that two Liberal Party officials may have committed crimes in their dealings with the by election's independent candidate Andrew Olivier. 

To me there are good excuses for the actions of this particular 41%.

To start with, it is not unreasonable to believe that the anti-rackets branch of the Ontario Provincial Police is not the ultimate or even an interim authority on how democracy works north of the Great Lakes.

As the media reports have at least kept emphasizing, no charges have been laid and nothing has been tested in court. And that is where the relevant authority lies. 

Moreover, according to a February 5 report in the Globe and Mail, the OPP technical document, which wound up in the media’s hands on by election day (yet another “smell test” failure) entertains a very broad interpretation of what constitutes the crime of bribery in Canada today. 

There is as well an important high-ground argument that very broad interpretations of such things as the crime of bribery run the risk of criminalizing many forms of ordinary political behaviour that are important in an effective democratic political system. 

Much closer to sea-level, the main burden of evidence of Andrew Olivier’s tapes of his conversations with the Sudbury area Liberal Gerry Lougheed and Patricia Sorbara, deputy chief of staff to Premier Wynne, was publicly available before the end of the Sudbury campaign. 

Around countless kitchen tables, people have their own ideas about what constitutes serious crime. It seems reasonable to guess that more than a few Sudbury voters listened to the evidence on Mr.Olivier’s tapes and concluded no crimes had been committed.

As far as I’ve seen, the conversations in question do not involve any specific job offers. And the OPP technical document apparently agrees with this. 

Mr. Olivier himself has said publicly that Premier Wynne did not make any job offer in the unrecorded conversation she had with him.

There certainly is a crime of bribery and it is important to repress it aggressively. 

But the kinds of “negotiations” broached among Olivier, Lougheed, and Sorbara in connection with the Sudbury by election certainly don’t seem to me any kind of crime. And I cannot see any good reason for legally prohibiting them. 

In fact, negotiations of this sort are frequently important for many different running parts of healthy democracies. They continue to play a large role in Canadian political history. Trying to criminalize them is not a sensible approach to democratic reform.

I find it dispiriting as well that the Sudbury by election has raised some very emotional conflicting reactions. 

Premier Wynne’s government has done a number of things ineptly in all this, and is open to criticism of one sort or another on various fronts. As William G. Davis once memorably reminded us: “The people of Ontario have never been spoiled by too much perfection in government.”

Yet to me it seems a very vast, quite wrong and even dangerously wild and alarming exaggeration to say that anyone involved in the negotiations over a Liberal candidate for Sudbury by election has committed serious or even unserious crimes.    

In the very end I was at least encouraged to hear that after the results were known the Liberal winner Glenn Thibeault (10,626 votes) said he wanted “to recognize all the candidates who put their names forward and contributed to a lively debate ... Our differences as candidates originate from the same place: our love for this community.” 

And I was very impressed that Mr. Thibeault’s main rival, New Democratic candidate Suzanne Shawbonquit (8,985 votes — the ultimately independent Andrew Olivier managed 3,177 — also said "if Thibeault is looking for an ally to fight for Sudbury" she'd be that person.

Now, if only the Liberals and NDP could show such smart democratic good manners at Queens’s Park. Mr. Thibeault (and Ms. Shawbonquit) will have their work cut out for them when the legislature resumes next week.

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : January 28, 2015

View all of Randall White's columns
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