Published On: Fri, Mar 22nd, 2019

Doug Ford’s trained seals embarrass themselves

It’s been said that the shortest measurable span of time is from the instant the traffic light turns green until the driver behind honks the horn.

A close runner-up must surely be the time between a man or woman being elected to the Ontario legislature as a government backbencher and their having lost all self-respect and capacity for independent thought.

MPP Randy Hillier has been expelled from the Progressive Conservative caucus at Queen’s Park in Toronto.
MPP Randy Hillier has been expelled from the Progressive Conservative caucus at Queen’s Park in Toronto.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

For at least 40 years, Queen’s Park backbenchers have complained that power is increasingly held by the unelected gatekeepers in the premier’s office and their own role has been reduced to that of compliant yes(wo)men.

In fact, the most common emotional trajectory in provincial politics is the newbie MPPs plunge from idealism to the dispirited realization that his or her lot is tedious hours of house duty, the recitation of canned speeches and forelock-tugging to the leadership.

The introduction of TV into the legislature in 1986 launched the era of backbenchers as performance art. The onset of caucus “messaging” – singing from the same rhetorical hymnal – took off in Ontario under the Mike Harris government in the 1990s.

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Leave it to Premier Doug Ford, however, to reach new depths of inanity.

Standing ovations for Ford and his cabinet ministers have become mandatory for Progressive Conservatives in the legislature, turning the government side into a crowd of fawning applauders worthy of citizenship in North Korea.

In being turfed from Ford’s caucus last week for his unruly ways, MPP Randy Hillier declared that one of the reasons he was expelled was his refusal to “stand and applaud” Ford’s every utterance in Question Period.

Hillier’s assertion that the clapping is a command performance is not difficult to believe, given that no set of adults would behave so obsequiously of their own free will.

To their feet they spring many times daily, furiously applauding dear leader, even as they furtively scan the chamber to ensure the premier’s ever-watchful staff has noted their fealty.

But even as they go through the motions, some Tory MPPs might sense that this triumphalism is a tactic of dubious benefit.

For one thing, citizens might not follow or fathom every twist and nuance of governance. But they have a good nose for phoniness.

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The subliminal takeaway might well be that if government members are faking it on this nonsense, what else is a fraud?

More important, perhaps, is the lesson recently learned in Ottawa about the abuse of first ministerial power.

It’s almost certain that some PC members are privately bitter about having to play trained seal and grousing among themselves.

What the prime minister has learned to his considerable cost is that a festering grievance inside a political organism can do more damage than any assault from without.

Simply put, this mindlessness is conduct unworthy of grown men and women, especially those who have been given the confidence of their constituents.

The orchestrated ovations are pathetic on the part of those who demand them, shameful on the part of those who meekly obey.

It would go some way to restoring public confidence in political institutions, in fact, if a government were to allow more free votes, more freedom for members to speak their minds, and more power to legislature committees. Instead, this government has imposed a regime of despotic discipline.

For too long, elected MPPs have checked their brains and their backbones at the door on arrival at the legislature. Too many have forgotten that their job is to bring the concerns of their riding to Queen’s Park, not the other way around.

To his credit, Randy Hillier never forgot who it was he served.

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TORONTO STAR

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Doug Ford’s trained seals embarrass themselves