Kathleen Wynne wasn’t on trial Wednesday in a Sudbury courtroom. But as the first sitting premier to appear on the witness stand, Wynne faced her own trial by fire.
Equally, Hillary Clinton wasn’t on trial in a congressional hearing room, or in an abortive FBI probe last year. But we know how that ended on the campaign trial.
Legally, Wynne could have dodged this week’s courtroom confrontation. Like all MPPs, she enjoys parliamentary immunity from judicial obligations.
Politically, however, the premier had every reason to waive those rights. By agreeing to testify in the bribery trial of her former top campaign aide and a local party loyalist, Wynne wanted to show in a provincial courtroom that she had nothing to hide.
But she had everything to defend in Ontario’s broader court of public opinion this week — not least her political reputation.
Wynne took a personal gamble, albeit with little downside. In our parliamentary system, a premier is practiced at the alternating rituals of Question Period and news conferences, which tend to be more challenging than the plodding crown prosecutors she faced in Sudbury.
Yet if the political risk was manageable, the potential upside isn’t so measurable for a premier trying to rebuild her reputation. In our legal system, an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty; in our political system, a premier is presumed corrupt until proven otherwise (even if she is not personally on trial).
It is unsurprising that politicians are not given the benefit of the doubt, given that they are prone to say with a straight face that their baloney is filet mignon. That said, the premier’s utterances were delivered under oath Wednesday, so there is more reason to take Wynne at her word, if only this once.
In truth, there were no surprises in her testimony, because few of the facts in this convoluted tale are in dispute. The cognitive dissonance comes in the context, in how you connect the dots and distinguish them from false leads.
Our accompanying news coverage lays out the background to the seemingly sordid story of attempted bribery: A failed candidate in the 2014 general election, Andrew Olivier, wanted to run again in a 2015 byelection until the premier sidelined him by settling on a more electable candidate, Glenn Thibeault.
In the aftermath, the premier’s team tried to pacify Olivier by dangling the prospect of an appointment if he would support Thibeault in a show of party unity. Their mistake was to go out of their way to console Olivier, a quadriplegic who records his calls because he cannot take notes.
And so a scandal was born: Olivier taped top Liberal campaign aide Pat Sorbara suggesting he consider the appointment process, and recorded local Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed doing the same.
When he posted the embarrassing recordings on Facebook, the opposition — which knows precisely how politics is played — pounced by filing an OPP complaint. Once the cops were on the scent, the story seemed to stink.
At first, they laid criminal code charges. When the cops and crown realized the chances of a conviction were remote, they downgraded the case to lesser provincial offences under the barely understood and rarely invoked Election Act — relying on wording clearly intended to guard against greedy land developers buying off dissidents with handsome bribes, not party leaders ridding themselves of losers.
That Olivier was never given any concrete offers, merely invited to go through the application process — for unpaid volunteer positions or a constituency assistant job that typically pays a whopping $35,000 a year — has been lost in all the bribery hyperbole. In reality, Olivier couldn’t be bought off because he had already been ruled out for the nomination, once the premier decided to appoint Thibeault using her power under the party constitution.
Which makes the whole muddle moot. Chicanery isn’t bribery.
Just ask Mike Duffy, who was excommunicated by his fellow senators and excoriated by his former media colleagues, before being exonerated by a judge who mocked the police case.
To borrow a hockey analogy, and as much as I oppose fighting in the NHL, imagine if a losing coach filed assault charges every time an opposing player threw a sloppy punch. When you criminalize the competitiveness of the political game, and when you weaponize the Election Act, you arrive at the absurdity that is Sudbury.
No one can predict a judge’s verdict. But this is a case that should never have gone to court, and may one day come back to haunt the opposition PCs as they deal with a similar mess of their own making in Hamilton — involving an embarrassing recording, a police investigation and litigation over a disputed nomination.
Let the games begin — cops and robbers and politicians chasing their tails. But don’t our police and prosecutors have real criminals to catch?