Should the Ontario Progressive Conservatives have kicked out Randy Hillier?
It’s a question that’s been asked since the longtime MPP was unceremoniously dumped from the caucus on March 15.
Hillier’s lively appearance on TVO’s The Agenda with host Steve Paikin last week put the wheels back in motion.
For me, the answer was obvious from the very start: Hillier should never have been removed from caucus.
Hillier, an electrician by vocation, co-founded the Lanark Landowners Association in 2003. He did the same thing with the Ontario Landowners Association in 2006, serving as its first president and championing property rights. (He left the OLA in 2012.)
He was first elected in 2007 in the riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington by less than 1,000 votes. The margin improved in 2011 and 2014, and he earned 52.03 per cent of the vote in 2018, when the riding became Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston.
While Hillier has a good relationship with his constituents, it’s been less rosy with party leaders.
He had his moments with John Tory and Tim Hudak. His working relationship with Patrick Brown became irreparable after suggesting his then-leader engaged in “dirty and crooked politics.”
Tory, Hudak and Brown never ejected Hillier from the PC caucus, however. That decision came from Premier Doug Ford.
Why did Ford do what his predecessors wouldn’t?
It depends which version of the story you believe.
The PC government suspended Hillier on Feb. 20 for making “disrespectful comments to parents of children with autism.” He reportedly said “Yada, yada, yada” to them upon exiting the legislature. Hillier denied this charge, claiming his comment was directed at NDP MPP Monique Taylor. He immediately apologized to any parent who felt hurt or offended.
Hillier wrote in his March riding newsletter, “The truth behind my removal however is not due to banter in the House, but long-standing tensions between me and Doug Ford’s most senior advisors (Dean French and Chris Froggatt) over what is expected of MPPs in the PC Caucus.” He outlined some of what he termed “a laundry list of questionable and childish grievances,” including refusing to “stand and clap for Ministers enough” in the legislature and putting “constituents and local stakeholders ahead of Party business.”
The PCs soon expelled Hillier for his decision to “escalate the situation in public,” and “an ongoing unwillingness … to be a team player and to work constructively on finding a solution.”
The newly independent MPP issued a press release on March 18 that listed 11 reasons for his expulsion, including a refusal to “stand and applaud,” “accept the obstruction and caucus criticism,” and “obtain permission to speak with the media.” He claimed French “wanted me out of caucus” during their initial meeting, and asked the integrity commissioner to look into concerns regarding unregistered lobbyists.
Hillier acknowledged to the Globe and Mail that “I can be a thorn.”
Nevertheless, he believes there “has to be disagreement, there has to be some level of tension,” as he told Paikin on March 29, “within any organization if you want to achieve the best outcome.”
Working alongside a political maverick like Hillier has its own set of challenges. His methodical speaking style and intellectual curiosity is respected, but party discipline and consistent messaging are integral for political survival.
Those who prefer to march to the beat of their own drum will often be at loggerheads with a party leader, even if he or she share some of those characteristics.
Nevertheless, differences of opinion are healthy in a democratic society. This is especially true for political parties, where individuals are elected under the same banner but hold disparate points of view. To expect them to march in lockstep or act like trained seals is preposterous.
The key is to find common cause and work toward that goal, and ensure all internal disagreements are put to rest quickly and effectively.
“Elected officials who speak up when something is wrong,” wrote conservative political commentator Jamie Ellerton in the Toronto Sun on March 10, “strengthen how government functions, for the people.”
This is the critical role that mavericks like Hillier play. Ford and the PCs need to rebuild this shattered relationship, move past their differences and welcome him back into the fold.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.