What the Doug Ford tape really means—and what it doesn’t

Even if Ford merely helped fudge nomination papers, members should have questions about the quality of their party's database.

A few things stand out upon listening to the apparent blockbuster tape released on Thursday by the Ontario Liberals that suggested wrongdoing on the part of PC leader Doug Ford.

The tape seems to indicate that Ford tried to sign up potential PC members sans membership fee. It’s coupled with allegations that Ford went to some lengths to secure the nomination in Etobicoke Centre for Kinga Surma, including signing up and busing in hundreds of loyalists to vote in her favour.

We’re told that this recording happened at a Tim Hortons in October 2016.

MORE: Doug Ford hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt on his nomination scandal

“It doesn’t cost ya anything, we’re just signing up people today,” he can be heard saying. “You don’t have to fill (out a membership nomination). She’ll take your name, number; just sign it.”

A full version of the tape is available here.

This is going to be a bit tricky, then, because we need to dissect the nomination procedure to better understand what is going on here.

Don’t worry, it will be fun and painless.

Sign up today for the Maclean’s Politics Insider newsletter »

If a candidate wants to run for a seat in the legislature, she generally must first apply to represent her preferred party in her riding.

If she were running to represent the Ontario PC party, she would have to fill out an application, which requires signatures from 25 PC Party members.

The application is then submitted to the party for vetting. If the potential candidate is approved, she is granted access to the PC Party membership lists, which she can use to campaign against other PC candidates vying for the same spot.

Party members show up on nomination day, vote, a winner is chosen, and bingo bango, our candidate’s name is on the ballot come election day.

The general public doesn’t tend to see much of this process. Political parties are part private clubs, so it’s common for party-preferred candidates to walk into these races with additional resources, support or endorsements.

MORE: Doug Ford can’t hide behind the ‘Patrick Brown’ excuse anymore

Accusations of outright rigging are common. And party leaders will often simply appoint candidates, forgoing the nomination process altogether. The closer a man sits to the ground, the more likely he is to be dirty.

A Conservative source who spoke on background said the tape released by the Liberals is a recording of Ford and Surma collecting signatures during the early stages of the nomination process; they aren’t signing up fake PC members to vote, per se. Rather, they appear to be trying to find the 25 signatures required for Surma’s nomination application.

In contrast, the Liberals say the recording was made in October — well after Surma’s nomination had been approved. This would indicate that Ford was, indeed, trying to sign up fake PC members to secure her nomination.

An affidavit and complaint filed by Pina Martino to the PC Party, also released by the Liberals on Thursday, made serious claims against Ford.

Martino was Surma’s competitor for the PC nomination in Etobicoke Centre; in her complaint, she makes several allegations, including that Ford stalked and intimidated her. She demands the party disqualify her competitor “prior to Monday’s scheduled nomination meeting.” In other words, Martino alleged signs of misconduct days before the vote was even held.

Martino’s 2016 complaint details more than 40 encounters with registered PC Party members who had no memory of signing up or paying for a membership. In and of itself, this might not be so odd.

People get confused, they forget they registered for a multi-year party membership. Sometimes people are signed up by their spouses.

More specifically, however, Martino notes that she tracked down 19 signatures and found that 14 of them had claimed not to have purchased memberships.

Ford has also been accused in a National Post story of signing up and busing as many as 600 PC party members to support Surma.

Now, there’s nothing unethical or untoward about signing up party members and then busing them to a nomination vote, per se. This is basic political organizing.

Parties do this all the time and at every level; it’s how politicians win everything from nomination races and executive positions to leadership contests and even elections in this country.

The only thing that would make this allegation stink is if Ford or Surma paid for these voting members out of pocket. Or, worse, if they were faking the membership rolls and then busing in their own people to vote under the names they collected while trolling local coffee shops.

Even if Ford’s antics were confined to helping Kinga fill out a nomination paper by corralling people at Timmies, it would certainly betray a character willing to play fast and loose on the technicalities. Mostly, it’s just astonishingly lazy.

But then, so was his attempt to account for his own behaviour.

In a press conference on Thursday, he repeatedly referenced the fact that these were two-year-old allegations and tried to deflect every question to a canned response on hydro rates. He said the party investigated Martino’s claims and dismissed her appeal.

This is not going to cut it.

MORE: Doug Ford’s politics of indulgence

If you want to cite the results of an investigation to get out of allegations of wrongdoing, then you’d better be prepared to deliver that investigation.

If the party investigated Martino’s claims and rejected them, then they should release the results. Even if Ford merely helped to fudge Surma’s nomination papers, members should have questions about the quality of their party’s database, data handling, and accounting procedures.

The real reason this is coming to light two weeks before election day is obvious, though I doubt it will do the Liberals any good come election day. Ford’s extraordinary campaigning on Surma’s behalf forces questions, one of which Globe and Mail delicately posed on Thursday: “I’m sure you are aware lots of people are speculating why you would go to such lengths to help Kinga Surma. Can you talk about the nature of your relationship with her?”

Ford, again, deflected.

“Our family in Etobicoke Centre, we have helped for the last 30 years, candidates,” he said. Ford claimed he also helped Surma’s competitor: “I personally donated to her campaign. Our family helped her. We’ve helped people for 30 years.”

I know no more here than any other avid Googler and, thus, don’t have much else to add except to note that Ford will serve himself best by being forthright and honest. But, like I said, the closer you get to the ground, the muddier it all looks.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.