Two ’Fords,’ two fates, two leaders undone by their virtues

What Rob Ford and Alison Redford have in common
Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford looks up before she speaks during the inaugural Principal’s Campus Forum at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., on Monday Nov. 26, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg
Chris Young/CP

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: thrown out of office over the consequences of using it to raise $3,150 for his youth football charity. Alberta Premier Alison Redford: not thrown out of office, and not likely to be, over her handling of a $10-billion tobacco lawsuit. Yes, the troubles of these oddly paired cross-country mirror images are very different in scale. But both, to some degree, have bogged down over conflicts of interest not just because of their actions but because of their very identities. One could argue that, like Shakespearean heroes, they have been undone by their virtues.

Ford, the single-minded, ebullient football coach, charged ahead and shrugged off warnings from the city’s integrity commissioner and the Speaker about his conflict in a council vote, leaving a judge with no choice but to punish him. Redford, a product of the ultra-small world of the Alberta bar, simply doesn’t seem to have imagined there would be controversy over choosing her ex-husband’s law firm to manage a massive tobacco lawsuit while she was justice minister of the province. As even her defenders observe, that’s just how business is done there. (Which would seem to be an argument for letting somebody from another province choose among bidders for giga-contracts.)

Toronto voted for Ford, by and large, because it wanted a renegade mayor who wouldn’t be a prisoner of city hall. Alberta voted for Redford, by and large, because it was tired of self-taught outsiders; it was ready to welcome back a premier from the right side of Calgary’s tracks. You buy the steak, you get the gristle as well as the sizzle.

Predictably, the two beleaguered “Fords” are bringing out the worst in their supporters. Mayor Ford’s original offence may have been penny-ante. But he missed a lot of opportunities to make things right, insisting that he could not see what he had done wrong; ignoring a formal finding that he did do wrong, along with plenty of subsequent warnings; and, eventually, participating in a vote of council on the subject of his own punishment. There are good reasons for provincial law to be particularly nitpicky when it comes to municipal officials, and any Ontarian who disagrees needs to peek next door at Quebec.

And please, let us hear no more about an unelected judge thwarting the “democratic will.” An election isn’t an unconditional permanent ticket to power. All elected officials are faced with continuing eligibility criteria, whether formal or purely moral. Our system of government depends on the premise that statutes are reflections of “democratic will” at least as much as particular personnel.

And the judge in Ford’s case generously left the mayor eligible to participate in the ensuing by-election should his appeal fail, essentially leaving the final disposition of the matter in the hands of the public. Couldn’t one argue that this should happen more often at all levels of government? Throw a few of the bums out at random every six months! Make them fight their way back!

Being toppled on a technicality may turn out to be the best thing ever to happen to Ford—both his cause and his character. It is harder to see this being true of Redford’s difficulties, although she has probably violated no written rule. Ex-husbands, particularly those one received a divorce from 21 years ago, don’t appear in Alberta conflict-of-interest law. But Redford’s ex, Robert Hawkes, served as the leader of her transition team when she became premier. And, anyway, Redford did not choose to defend herself on those grounds; she fell back on the technicality that the final-final decision on the tobacco suit was left to her successor at the Justice ministry, Verlyn Olson, who took over after she picked a “preferred bid” from among three contenders and exited the ministry. This opened her to an argument over privilege in the assembly and created embarrassment for the new Conservative Speaker, Gene Zwozdesky, when he was forced to scurry for a pretext to kill the debate.

The real scandal might be that governments are suing tobacco companies for “health care costs” at all. The newspapers are full of stories about how longer lifespans among retirees are crushing public treasuries, yet somehow we accept that tobacco companies owe governments more money because tobacco users die younger. Very well: granting that premise, why not simply crank up the tobacco tax (already $5 a pack in Alberta) to match the estimated liability? Whether won in court or taken by fiat, most of the cost burden will be passed on to addicts. But only in the former case do trial lawyers get their snouts in the trough.