Kevin O’Leary won’t seek Ontario PC leadership, but will be ‘agitator’ in race

First published at Global News on February 5, 2018.

The self-styled “Mr. Wonderful” won’t be in the PC Party of Ontario leadership race — but Kevin O’Leary says he will get involved.

The billionaire financier and Shark Tank star told Global News Radio 980 CFPL in an exclusive interview Monday that he plans on serving as an “agitator” to the PC party’s leadership contest. And he isn’t ruling out another federal run in the future.

Citing Ontario’s status as a noncompetitive, money-losing province, O’Leary said ousting Premier Kathleen Wynne is “ultimately the most important thing.”

“We can’t fire her for malfeasance,” he said. “She’s not working in a private company: we can only go through an election process. I would say the probability of getting rid of her now has never been higher.”

During his aborted run for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2017, O’Leary frequently took aim at Wynne, calling her “incompetent,” expressing his desire to see her “fired,” and making it a “personal goal” to rid Ontario of her.

That raised the question of whether he planned to take her on directly by trying to lead the PC Party of Ontario.

While he said that isn’t in the cards for him, he wants to help Ontario find the best person to do so. He sees potential in the field of candidates stepping up to replace Patrick Brown, though he won’t formally endorse or support any of them before seeing their platforms.

“We’ve got to find that manager amongst these candidates that’s gonna get us out of that mess,” he said. “And I don’t know who that is yet, so I’m, like everybody else, very excited that we can finally bring forward a candidate that has the capability of getting rid of Kathleen Wynne.”

There’s one surefire method to tumble to the bottom of O’Leary’s list, however — support a carbon tax.

The controversial hallmark of Patrick Brown’s policies — introduction of a revenue-neutral carbon tax — is a no-go for O’Leary, who says he’ll wage social media war on any candidates who don’t clearly and unequivocally oppose such a tax.

“I want to hear right out of their lips, ‘No carbon tax,’” he said. “I don’t want to hear the wishy-washy, ‘Maybe, maybe not,’ ‘I’m going to talk to the caucus,’ ‘I’m going to talk to the constituency.’ I’ve heard a lot of that. That’s crap. I want to hear, ‘No carbon tax.’ Anybody that supports a carbon tax, I am vehemently against.”

When O’Leary withdrew from the federal leadership race — too late to remove himself from the ballot — he was at the top of the polls. However, he crunched the numbers and didn’t see a path to victory because of his sub-par performance in Quebec. Even if he won the federal Conservative leadership, he decided there would be no way he could win a general election with the majority he thought was necessary to enact the change he wanted.

His desire to agitate the Ontario PC party leadership race may be seen by some as a public relations ploy, but it actually combats his biggest weakness in the federal Conservative leadership race — people not knowing whether he was serious.

Many conservatives criticized him as a fly-by-night candidate. He had never been involved in Conservative politics before. So why now?

When he left the federal leadership race, many questioned whether he had been looking for an exit strategy all along, and had merely been on a lark. His desire to engage in the political process now is encouraging, showing he genuinely sees a role for himself within it.

Whether his motives are pure is something future voters can decide, and it looks like they may have an opportunity to do so.

O’Leary, who is hosting a fundraiser this spring to help pay off his former campaign’s $500,000 in debt, may run again.

“If I could solve the language problem, I could have a good shot, one day, at getting a federal mandate,” he said. “And I’ve always thought that Canada could be like Switzerland if it was properly managed. That’s the opportunity I still have my eye focused on.”

The politics of rumours, whispers and ‘open secrets’

“The quietest person in the room is the one with the most knowledge.”

That was the first and best piece of advice I received when I arrived on Parliament Hill to work as a political aide a decade ago.

The axiom, shared with me by a prominent cabinet minister’s chief of staff, served to illustrate that, in Ottawa, one should ignore the rumours, whispers, and any story beginning with, “I heard.”

Such tales are mainstays on the Hill, often told by up-and-coming politicos eager to prove their relevance by demonstrating how in-the-know they are. I was guilty of sharing a few myself.

Money, power and bullsh*t are Ottawa’s three currencies (I’ll let you figure out which order they fall in.)

The people who really know things keep their mouths shut. And when secrets can topple careers, they’re kept quiet until they’re needed. When that moment comes, they come out with a bang, not a whimper.

As the online rumour mill ramps ups, I’d caution Canada’s political and media actors to heed the bit of wisdom I received nearly 10 years ago.

Social media is abuzz with anticipation of an impending bombshell story about … well, something.

Aside from rampant speculation, no one seems to know anything about the story, the subject, or the media outlet supposedly spearheading it.

We’re on track to look like fools if nothing materializes.

All of it seems to stem back to a single blog post by former Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella.

In the wake of the resignations of Patrick Brown, Jamie Baillie and Kent Hehr over sexual misconduct allegations, Kinsella said “other men will be going down,” offering one example — sort of.

“One of these men is very, very powerful,” Kinsella wrote. “The stories have been known about him for three years. They are in affidavits, plural. His name will shock you.”

Apart from saying that he thinks now “is the time” for this mystery man to be exposed, there was no claimed knowledge of imminence. But that hasn’t stopped people from standing on tenterhooks every day this week, awaiting the implosion of one of Canada’s favourite sons.

Without concrete information, I’d hope people could take a wait-and-see approach to any such possibilities, but that is too much to ask in the social media age. Instead, we get conspiracy theories ranging from banal intra-office affairs to some that likely involve a George Soros-run Illuminati orgy party in the basement of a Washington pizzeria.

Anything’s possible, I suppose.

If there is a story to be told, the people who know the most are not the ones sounding off about it. This is not directed at Kinsella, but rather the people extrapolating without the sources he has.

One “insider” told me they know the affidavits are real because they know someone who knows someone who signed one. Seriously.

Someone else told me they heard the affidavits are sitting in a filing cabinet in a party’s headquarters, but couldn’t remember where they heard it.

At a press conference Tuesday, CTV reporter Mercedes Stephenson asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if he knew the identity of the man to whom Kinsella alluded.

Trudeau simply said, “No.”

He was later asked whether he had examined his own conduct with women in light of the flood of #MeToo admissions, prompting a story about volunteering with a McGill University sexual assault centre 25 years ago, where, he said, he learned about “consent, communications, accountability (and) power dynamics.”

Opposition leaders Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer were similarly asked if they had any misconduct in their pasts that was likely to emerge.

Singh said, as a lawyer, he has used language in a legal context that doesn’t align with the survivor-first approach he wants to embrace now.

Scheer said there was nothing of note in his past, adding, “a good friend, when I first got elected, said nothing good ever happens in Ottawa after 8 o’clock, and I’ve tried to live by that rule.”

(Having worked in Ottawa, I can say before 8 p.m. isn’t much better.)

The questions are valid enough, but it’s doubtful any of the leaders would have responded with anything other than denial when asked in such a vague way.

What were we expecting Scheer and Singh to say? “Oh, now that you mention it …” As if.

Those accused of abusing their power and those around them rarely think a hammer is about to drop on them until it does. It’s dangerous to speculate who’s guilty of what without any evidence.

But if an Ottawa bombshell does exist, we know once it breaks that we’ll be told it was an “open secret,” with self-proclaimed insiders telling us they knew all along. Then, television panels and columnists will ask why no one ever spoke up.

Even when so-called open secrets do exist in political corridors, they’re more often wrong than right.

I heard lots about who was sleeping with whom and who made an ass of themselves at which reception, but the times I had anything concrete could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

And even then, it was two divorced MPs kissing at a party and a former minister of the Crown almost passing out drunk in an elevator mid-day — not the stuff of #MeToo allegations.

If there is a bona fide account of wrong-doing involving a “very, very powerful” Canadian politician, I hope it sees the light of day and justice is served.

Otherwise, if you know nothing, say nothing.

In today’s climate, it doesn’t matter if Patrick Brown is guilty

First published at Global News on January 25, 2018.

Another day, another shining example of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario’s addiction to losing.

Patrick Brown just became the fourth PC leader in a row to leave his party in flames, potentially gifting the Liberals yet another electoral victory, with just four months until the writ drops.

Brown resigned as Ontario’s opposition leader early Thursday morning, just hours after holding a Queen’s Park press conference to deny sexual misconduct allegations made by two young women.

The visibly emotional and shaken Brown vowed to fight the “false” accusations published by CTV News, but appeared to be waging this war on his own. Brown had no staff with him at the press conference. Moments later, five senior staffers announced their resignations, and Brown was censured by his caucus.

He was alone. And by 1:30 a.m., he clearly didn’t see a way forward as party leader.

I can’t laud Brown for making the right decision to resign as leader, because it was the only option. Even if he is innocent, there’s no way he could effectively lead his party to victory while playing defence against something like this. Especially in this climate.

In the #MeToo age, once accused of sexual misconduct, you are merely a passenger. The only thing you can control is the damage — and even then, only barely.

The PC party, which has undergone a significant moderating rebrand under Brown, had to show that it takes sexual harassment and assault seriously, even if the allegations pre-date his tenure as leader.

The first allegation is that Brown demanded (and received) oral sex from a drunken high schooler after a night at the bar a decade ago. The second is that he sexually assaulted a young staffer several years ago. Both are alleged to have taken place while he was a federal Conservative MP.

The initial CTV report stresses that the first of the alleged victims was in high school, but her age at the time is not known — just that she is now 29 and the run-in occurred “more than 10 years ago.” Brown is 39 now, putting 10 years between them. At the time, Canada’s age of consent was 14.

They met at a bar, and the report doesn’t address whether Brown knew how old she was, or that she was in high school.

In the second case, Brown allegedly hit on his aide while she was drunk and they were sitting on his bed. She says she “froze up” as he kissed her and when she said she wanted to go home, he drove her there without issue. She returned to work for him the following year.

Now, when it comes to politicians’ conduct, I don’t buy into the idea the only relevant question is whether something is legal or illegal. Politicians need to be held to a higher standard than simply following the law. They must be above reproach.

We must be careful to not misrepresent the situation in our criticism of Brown, however. On the spectrum of #MeToo-esque accusations, these claims put Brown closer to Aziz Ansari than to Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.

If the allegations are true, Brown has serious judgment issues. His caucus determined that these sexual proclivities either render him unfit for office or simply make him untenable as a candidate.

Despite his pledge to clear his name, his political career is over.

While I have no doubt there is a great deal of giddiness in the offices of NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Premier Kathleen Wynne this week, no one should celebrate a political climate in which any and all allegations, with no investigation or analysis, deliver career ruin.

This is not to say claims shouldn’t be investigated. Quite the contrary, in fact.

On the same day of Brown’s press conference, Nova Scotia PC leader Jamie Baillie stepped down at the culmination of an internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations. He went through a rigorous process that found there were enough grounds to justify a resignation.

Brown has no such process available to him. And unless he pursues legal action against his accusers, he will likely never have the opportunity to put the allegations through a stringent, transparent test.

The oft-cited court of public opinion is hardly qualified to weigh in, though people have no doubt drawn their own conclusions.

Our culture has weaponized misconduct allegations. We need to find a way forward to deal with them in a way that doesn’t result in instantaneous, unfettered career destruction. Otherwise, we’ll all pay the price.

The big picture is irrelevant for Brown and the PCs though. Once again, the party is on track to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A Thursday afternoon press conference by the PC party’s deputy leaders revealed a great deal of disorganization and uncertainty about where the party goes from here.

Will Christine Elliott come back? Will a veteran caucus member like Lisa MacLeod fill the void? Maybe Christopher Plummer is available.

Being pro-life doesn’t mean being anti-rights

First published at Global News on January 18, 2018.

Is there anything new to say about abortion?

I’m grappling with that question as I write this.

Even if not, there’s much to say about the abortion debate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long espoused the belief that the abortion issue is settled and shouldn’t be discussed. In spite of this, he’s once again revived the debate by trying to shut it down.

Trudeau’s government has changed the rules for the Canada Summer Jobs program — which subsidizes student summer employment at companies and charities — so any organization applying must now attest its “core mandate” supports a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

This change comes just weeks after the federal government settled a lawsuit launched by pro-life groups denied Canada Summer Jobs funding last year — before the ideological purity test was on the books.

At a town hall last week, Justin Trudeau doubled down on the new rule, which has attracted the ire of not only pro-life advocacy groups, but also charities tied to religions that are against abortion — a group that includes almost all Christian denominations, as well as most of Judaism and Islam.

“An organization that has the explicit purpose of restricting women’s rights by removing rights to abortion and the right for women to control their own bodies is not in line with where we are as a government, and quite frankly where we are as a society,” he said.

“You’re more than allowed to have whatever beliefs you like, but when (these) beliefs lead to actions determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body, that’s where I, and I think we, draw the line as a country.”

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office further clarified its position, saying “faith-based organizations who do plenty of work outside those realms, would not be affected by the attestation.”

But even so, they’d be expected to check the box saying they believe something they don’t.

Our constitution specifically guarantees freedom of expression, which suggests acting on beliefs is not, as Trudeau claims, legally distinct from privately holding beliefs.

But the prime minister’s approach is consistent with that of many pro-choice Canadians: abortion is a legitimate choice, thus restricting access to it is anti-choice.

Those in the pro-choice camp are generally indignant that those in the pro-life camp could possibly have the beliefs they do. The reverse is true as well, proving both factions are having entirely different discussions.

(Note that I’m referring to those on each side of the argument by their preferred monikers to avoid the inevitable contrived semantical fights.)

The ethical debate surrounding abortion is not about whether a woman has the right to have a fetus removed: it’s about whether that fetus is a human life.

Pro-choicers believe it isn’t, while pro-lifers believe it is. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s important to understand the abortion debate along these lines, rather than the Trudeaupian view that pro-lifers — a category that includes many women, incidentally — are at odds with womanly autonomy.

If pro-lifers didn’t recognize a fetus as a life, there’d be no grounds to argue abortion is wrong. And if pro-choicers did recognize a fetus as a life, they couldn’t argue for a woman’s right to remove it.

The radical feminist view of prostitution, for example, dictates that a woman cannot consent to something that is inherently harmful, because of the broader implications of that action. While radical feminists are vehemently pro-choice, the same approach — that abortion cannot be legitimized as a “choice” because of the effect on the unborn child — could apply to the abortion debate.

Lest there be no confusion about my position, I am pro-life. I think abortion is wrong. But above all, I think abortion, like any other issue, should never be placed above debate, as the prime minister is doing.

Allowing discussion and dissent about abortion should be a no-brainer, because the dialogue stems from a scientific question: at what point does life begin?

Sure, religion and philosophy play huge roles in how many answer that question. But there are pro-life and pro-choice scientists who peg the genesis of a life at points both in utero and at birth.

Before his fall from grace, pro-choice comedian Louis CK crafted a poignant (albeit crass) bit about this phenomenon.

“I think abortion is exactly like taking a sh-t,” he said. “Or it isn’t. It is or it isn’t. It’s either taking a sh-t or it’s killing a baby. It’s only one of those two things. It’s no other things.”

The bit continued with the observation that while he disagrees with the pro-life position, his fellow pro-choicers need to get that pro-lifers won’t shut up about abortion, because, well, they think it’s state-sanctioned murder.

Just as pro-choicers think they’re standing up for women in the face of oppression, pro-lifers think they’re standing up for children against the same force.

Of course, like any political comedy, the joke fell flat with some. A Vogue column accused it of being too simplistic and reductive (as opposed to Louis CK’s other, erm, intellectual comedy?), saying that women who’ve contemplated or had abortions don’t consider it as insignificant an act as defecating.

It’s a valid criticism. Most pro-choice Canadians I’ve encountered don’t view abortion flippantly, which reinforces the complexity of the subject. All the more reason to welcome debate, or, at the very least, not to exclude from government programs advocacy groups trying to strike a conversation.

Trudeau not only misrepresents the debate, but, by mandating ideological uniformity, does so at the expense of free expression.

People can have their beliefs on the matter, but the sooner we recognize what the debate is actually about, the more constructive a dialogue we can have on it.

RCMP’s job is to enforce the law, but it’s falling short on access to information laws

First published at Global News on January 12, 2018.

Canada’s largest police service has yet to fulfill an access to information request I filed last year — and no one from its information and privacy department is responding to explain why.

Last October, I filed a routine document request with the RCMP to better understand the scope of a story I had started following earlier in the fall.

The access to information office for the RCMP sent me a notice acknowledging it received my request on Oct. 17. But since then, nothing.

These requests under the Access to Information Act — ATIPs, for short — can no doubt be a thorn in the side of bureaucrats. Many of them require time and effort to fill, and some contain damning information. Such is the price one pays for transparency.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals campaigned, in part, on a pledge to improve access to information laws, which hadn’t been updated in more than three decades. One change, which I greatly supported, was the elimination of processing fees (which could sometimes run hundreds of dollars) beyond the $5 application charge.

What didn’t change is the requirement for government departments — including the RCMP — to supply either the requested documents, or an extension notice, within 30 days.

In my case, a month came and went with neither provided. In fact, in the 86 days since acknowledging receipt of my ATIP, I’ve had no communication whatsoever from the RCMP’s information department on the substance of my requests.

Nothing. Egregiously, the two inquiries I sent about my file to the RCMP’s information office have yet to be fulfilled.

If they’re hoping I’ll forget about it and move on, I won’t.

It’s understandable that in a large organization, some things will fall through the cracks. But my experience isn’t an outlier, nor is it representative of a new problem for the RCMP — an agency well known for being cagey with the press.

In 2013, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault rebuked the police department for not responding to information access requests.

“This past year at some point, they just completely stopped responding,” Legault said of the RCMP. “Requesters were complaining to my office, but we didn’t even have any response from the institution.”

I did file a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner earlier this month, but it sounds as though I shouldn’t be optimistic.

When Legault’s scathing report was published, an RCMP spokesperson said the force was “diligently working towards increasing our efficiency.”

We’re now four and a half years later, and it appears the RCMP has little to show for its purported efforts.

In 2016, the RCMP came under fire after admitting an employee fabricated the date of an access to information response to avoid being penalized for the delay.

It shouldn’t have come as any surprise to the RCMP that, this past November, it was awarded the “Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy” by a group of journalism organizations. This came on the heels of a News Media Canada report finding the RCMP responded to zero out of five requests in a cross-government freedom of information audit the group conducted.

That report concluded that access to information has worsened under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, despite his campaign promise and subsequent legislation.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the RCMP, told me the government “is committed to maintaining the integrity of the (Access to Information Act) process and does not interfere in the processing of requests.”

He pointed to the government’s improvements to information access such as giving the Information Commissioner order-making power, putting ministerial and Prime Minister’s Office staff inside the Access to Information Act, and reviewing the legislation every five years.

These are good steps, for sure. But they’re irrelevant when a government department doesn’t appear to be complying with the law.

I asked the RCMP’s media relations office for comment, and was told the information office “offers its apologies for not communicating with you in a timely fashion to update you on the progress of your request.”

I didn’t want an apology though. I wanted — and still want — what they’re legally obligated to provide.

Instead, the RCMP spokesperson said “a number of factors” — including volume of requests, complexity of police records, and shortage of ATIP analysts — prevent the RCMP from meeting the statutory 30-day timeline of requests.

“As this matter is now before the Office of the Information Commissioner, we anticipate there will be opportunities to clarify the circumstances of your particular case through the investigative process,” a statement said. “The RCMP is working diligently to meet its responsibilities under the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act and to be transparent with Canadians with respect to our work or activities which may impact the privacy of Canadians.”

These concerns may have merit, but they don’t excuse the department’s apparent inability to improve its processes over the last five years. They also don’t justify non-responses to inquiries about delays.

This is government secrecy and non-transparency from a department that should be among the most forthright.

I doubt the RCMP would respond well to civilians ignoring subpoenas and warrants, so it’s unacceptable that it chooses to ignore its legal obligations when it comes to government transparency.

If we can’t trust the enforcers of the law to follow the law, who can we trust?