Analysis

How charges against Kathleen Wynne adviser could resonate in election

Premier Kathleen Wynne's handpicked choice to run her re-election campaign has stepped aside amid charges of bribery. But what voters really want to hear about is the job the Liberals are doing on health care and education, insists Wynne's deputy.

As Pat Sorbara resigns post as campaign director, Ontario Liberals try to downplay how much voters care

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's government has been rocked by another scandal that could have an impact on its prospects for re-election in 2018: bribery charges against her former chief of staff, Pat Sorbara, and Sudbury-based Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Premier Kathleen Wynne's handpicked choice to run her re-election campaign has stepped aside amid charges of bribery.

No worries, insists Wynne's deputy: the rest of our campaign team is great and besides, what voters really want to hear about is the job we're doing on health care and education.

That's the thrust of the message from Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, co-chair of the Ontario Liberal 2018 election campaign. She was getting grilled by reporters at Queen's Park about charges of bribery against Pat Sorbara, the party's CEO and campaign director (until resigning the posts on Tuesday).

I asked Matthews what Sorbara's resignation would do to her party's re-election hopes. Her response: "Pat obviously is a key member of our team but it's a very strong team, and there are many people with lots of experience who can move the campaign forward."

Matthews then faced further questions about how the bribery charges would hurt her party in the eyes of voters. She brushed off each one with a version of this: "People are looking for what we're doing on those issues that are important to people. How's our education system? What are we doing to strengthen health care? What are we doing on climate change?"

Ontario Advanced Education and Skills Development Minister and Deputy Premier Deb Matthews told reporters Tuesday that Ontarians are more interested in issues such as jobs, health care and climate change than scandals. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The Liberals would certainly far rather talk about health care, education and the environment — or heck, even the economy or hydro bills — than about the fact that one of Wynne's closest advisers is due in court in three weeks.

It's a delicate spin job that Matthews is trying to perform, hoping that yet another backroom political scandal ranks pretty low on the list of what really matters to voters.   

Yet there's an awful risk of underestimating how much people care about charges that reach right into the premier's office.  

"The Liberals cannot pretend that this is nothing but fluff," said NDP leader Andrea Horwath. "This is serious. These are allegations of bribery." 

PC leader Patrick Brown says it comes down to a matter of trust. 

Pat Sorbara, who has resigned as CEO of the Ontario Liberals and the party's campaign director, has been charged with two counts of bribery. (Mike Crawley/CBC News)

"People do not trust Premier Wynne, they do not trust her staff, they do not trust her operatives and the fact they continue to be before clouds of OPP investigations."

It's guaranteed that the opposition parties will continue to raise this issue until and unless Sorbara is cleared of the charges. Their objective: link the alleged bribery directly to Wynne.   

On Tuesday, Brown asked Wynne repeatedly (in the protected-from-libel venue of Question Period) whether she ordered Sorbara and her co-accused, Sudbury-based Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed Jr., to offer the alleged bribe. 

"The fact that she won't say that she didn't order them to do this raises serious questions, and I think leaves everybody under the assumption that she's complicit," Brown told reporters at the Legislature.

Sorbara is vowing to neutralize the issue by beating the charges in court.

"I have served my entire career with integrity and a deep respect for the law," Sorbara said in her resignation letter Tuesday to the Ontario Liberal Party.

"I continue to believe, with my whole heart, as I have from the beginning, that any charge against me will not succeed. I am shocked by any suggestion that I have done anything wrong."

Gerry Lougheed, a Liberal Party fundraiser based in Sudbury, is also accused of bribery under the Elections Act. (Radio-Canada)

Wynne too insisted Sorbara did nothing wrong, from the moment the allegations first surfaced nearly two years ago. 

I asked the premier on Tuesday if she still feels that way. "I'm on record, as you said, and I stand by the comments that I have made throughout."

Wynne is obviously deeply loyal to Sorbara, described by colleagues and rivals as a talented political organizer.

"During the time that I am dealing with these matters, I do not want in any way for our Party to be tarnished," Sorbara added in her letter.

Ultimately, whether this all tarnishes the Liberals, will be up to the voters. 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark