Liberals suffer at the polls despite Sudbury bribery trial acquittals: Fisher

The Sudbury bribery trial is over. The judge went beyond saying Pat Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed were not guilty. He said there was no merit to the charges at all and acquitted them. Despite that ruling the trial continues to plague the Liberals. Queen's Park analyst Robert Fisher explains how.

Robert Fisher's Ontario political analysis appears here every two weeks

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne makes her way into a Sudbury courtroom. Wynne was called by the Crown as a witness in the trial of bribery allegations during the 2015 Sudbury byelection. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada/CBC)

The Sudbury bribery trial is over. Judge Howard Borenstein went beyond saying Patricia Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed were not guilty. The judge said there was no merit to the charges against them at all and acquitted them. Despite that ruling the trial continues to plague the Liberals. Queen's Park analyst Robert Fisher explains how.

Listen to his full interview with Craig Norris of CBC's Kitchener-Waterloo by clicking the play button or read an edited and abridged transcript below.

Robert Fisher, Ontario politics analyst

Veteran political analyst Robert Fisher delivers his insights into Ontario politics every two weeks. (CBC)

The two sides in the college teacher's strike are set to return to the table. How much of this has to do with Wynne mentioning back-to-work legislation?

It's not a coincidence. No college semester has ever, in this province, been lost due to a strike. Frankly, I think the last thing Deb Matthews and Kathleen Wynne need or want is for this to happen on their watch. I expect it will be settled pretty quickly with the resumption of bargaining. It's only going to happen if there's give and take on both sides.

Last night I received an OPSEU bulletin that is being sent out to striking college teachers. The headline was 'your bargaining team is ready to bargain when contract talks resume.' We'll see where that goes. For college students there is some light at the end of the tunnel. 

The Sudbury bribery trial was a slam dunk decision here so how does this trial continue to hurt the Liberals?

They've been acquitted in the courts but not yet, it seems, in the court of public opinion. The first post-trial poll done by Forum Research shows damage to the Liberal brand. Interestingly, very few people in this poll hadn't heard of the Sudbury case. That's bad news for the Wynne Liberals. Rita Celli's show Ontario Today showed that there is no mood yet to forgive and forget. Senior Liberals tell me they thought the acquittal removed what they call 'voter irritation' and gave them back a key campaign organizer in Pat Sorbara but so far the irritant remains there. 39% of the people in this Forum poll said they would be less likely to vote Liberal because of the Sudbury trial, acquittal notwithstanding. 

The Tories were making hay with the bribery trial, but the party has since pulled back.  What does the PC party do now?

The first thing was to remove that pre-campaign ad that prominently mentioned the Sudbury trial. But, don't look for the Conservatives to back off references to the 'politically corrupt government' in attacking the Liberals. Keep in mind there are voters who dismiss the acquittal as something based solely on a technicality. They want to continue to try to paint the Liberals as untrustworthy as we move towards the election.

On Monday, former deputy premier George Smitherman wrote a rather scathing Facebook post saying the grassroots of the Liberals have "all but died off." What is your take on that post and what it could mean for the Liberals?​

It's not good news if you are promising an open transparent party. The reality is that Kathleen Wynne has a say on who is on her team. So does Patrick Brown. In the Smitherman case, she doesn't want someone who, yes was a key cabinet minister, but is someone who will remind voters of the Dalton McGuinty years. 

The riding that Mr. Smitherman was interested in was Toronto Centre. The Liberals have a lock on that riding provincially and federally but she has somebody else in mind, maybe a Toronto city councillor. I'm not sure the party realized that Smitherman, whose nickname is Furious George, would go so public with his distaste for what he calls Ms. Wynne's suffocating of the grassroots nomination process. It stings. I think Smitherman will concentrate on a Toronto city council seat.

The gas plant trial is also underway currently, although like the Sudbury bribery trial, defence has asked for charges to be dropped. How do you see that playing out politically?

The Liberals very much want this other trial to go away. And prefer that the end result be the same as the Sudbury case. The judge will decide early next week if there is enough evidence for this to proceed. The Liberal brand has been hurt by this kind of thing. With a few months left before an election this is their key wish — 'get this stuff off our plate so we can concentrate on something else.'