In what it describes as an unprecedented move, the Ontario Provincial Police Association has launched an attack ad campaign against Tim Hudak, declaring that the Progressive Conservative leader has plucked his policies from the "Tea Party world" of the United States.
The union representing 6,000 uniformed officers and nearly 3,000 civilian members began airing two 15-second ads Monday. The ads end with the words "We're here for you. Who's Tim Hudak here for?"
Hudak promised early on in the election campaign that he would eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs if he won the election.
The PC leader said May 9 that services he described as "vital work," being done by nurses, doctors and police, would not be affected.
Neither the police union ads nor the organization's president, Jim Christie, specifically mention job cuts. Instead they focus on Hudak's stance on pensions, collective bargaining rights, arbitration and wage freezes.
"This is not an endorsement of any of the other parties, and it's not a vilification of any of the hard-working Conservative caucus members in the province," Christie said on CBC's Power & Politics. "But it's become pretty clear that his own stances have gone so far to the right that it would have a negative effect on my members should he be successful.
"He has certain plans that he has, I would say, cherry-picked from the right-to-work states and the Tea Party world of the United States that he plans to bring to Ontario."
The OPP Association says it's the first time in its 60-year history that it is undertaking a publicity campaign during an election.
No exemptions from wage freeze: Hudak
Hudak seemed unfazed by the ads Wednesday.
"I think our police officers do an outstanding job and I respect the work they do, there's no other profession like it," Hudak said at an appearance in Toronto. "But if you're asking me, am I going to give exemptions to anybody from our wage freeze, the answer is no."
Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at York University, was surprised by the ads.
"It’s absolutely crucial that our police are seen as non-partisan," he said. "Because the police play such an important role enforcing our laws, they need to be seen by everyone as a non-partisan force.
"If people start to think they favour one party over another, it raises a whole host of concerns about civil liberties, due process and favouritism."
Pilon called the union's move "quite striking," because police are often aligned with conservative governments and parties.
"The relationship between the police services, in particular the police union, and the political right in Ontario has been very tight over the last 25 years. It’s quite striking to see this," he said. "The political right is often much more focused on law and order and that helps to increase police budgets. There’s a natural fit between the two of them.
"To have [the union] come and repudiate a party that could win this election is a very surprising development."
Restrictions on police politics
The OPP opened a criminal investigation last year into the destruction by senior Liberal staff of emails about the costly cancellation of two gas plants and has also investigated irregularities at Ornge, the province's air ambulance service.
Asked whether his association's actions are a conflict of interest given those investigations, Christie said, "Absolutely not."
"The OPP investigate hundreds of thousands of cases a year. These are two of them. They are high profile indeed, but [OPP] Commissioner [Vince] Hawkes manages and directs the actions of his membership when it comes to day-to-day investigations," Christie told CBC News. "I simply look after the labour relations side and their welfare."
The force issued a statement Monday evening distancing itself from the ad campaign.
"As part of the greater Ontario government, the OPP does not participate in or offer any opinions or positions regarding elections and politics," the text read. "The advertisements related to the current provincial election were produced and paid for by OPPA and are not in any way supported by the Ontario Provincial Police."
The Ontario law governing the province's public service makes it illegal for an OPP member to "engage in political activity in the workplace" and tightly restricts any political activities that "could interfere with the performance of his or her duties as a public servant." But in similar cases in past election campaigns, police groups such as the Toronto Police Association have backed candidates for premier, including the PC Party's Ernie Eves in 2003.
Asked about those rules, Christie said he was speaking out not as a police sergeant but as a labour representative, a role he is "fully seconded" to.
"I'm doing this on a professional basis in my role as a fully seconded, full-time member of the police association, and I'm not doing it in my private time. I'm not campaigning, I'm not hammering in signs across the province of Ontario like many other professions enjoy the ability to do," he said.
"Police associations have been political, and politically active, as long as I've been a police officer. And that's some 20 years now... It's naive to believe that we're not politically active in the first place."
In a news release Monday, the PCs called on OPP Commissioner Hawkes, as well as Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and Madeleine Meilleur, the province's attorney general, to state whether they believed police associations should be allowed to take part in "political activism" during an election campaign.
NDP campaign co-chair Gilles Bisson, a former senior official with the Ontario Federation of Labour, said in a statement that the advertisements were "bad timing."
"The OPP cannot be seen to turn a blind eye to Liberal corruption," he said.
The ads are to air across Ontario and will continue airing in some markets until June 10. It's not clear how much the police union spent on producing the ads or how much air time it has purchased.