For more than three decades, Greg Sorbara had a fulfilling and varied career as a Liberal politician in the province of Ontario.
In 1985, in just his first election attempt, he won a seat that had been held by the Tories for 40 straight years. He was only 39 years old, yet he marched straight into Premier David Peterson’s cabinet.
Seven years later, he sought the Liberal leadership and finished in third place, behind the eventual winner, Lyn McLeod.
He left politics in 1995 but couldn’t stay away for long. When his friend MPP Al Palladini died, in 2001, the siren song of politics drew Sorbara back — first as Liberal party president, then as an MPP, replacing Palladini. In 2003, he helped create the coalition that would make Dalton McGuinty Ontario’s 24th premier.
He then joined the cabinet as finance minister, nearly two decades after his first go-round on the executive council. He got some stuff done that was important to him (such as establishing the Ontario health premium and the Ontario child benefit) and then, in 2012, walked away from politics again to pursue another mission in life (more on that later). He won seven elections and never lost one.
All of which is to say, Sorbara’s bona fides as a Liberal are pretty well established.
So why was he on the phone to me earlier this week praising Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government?
Well, it seems the new team at Queen’s Park has already, in its nascent days, done a few things to Sorbara’s liking — things that his former friends on Team Liberal never would do.
Item 1: Much of Sorbara’s new mission in life takes place in Prince Edward County, two hours east of Toronto. He’s renovating Picton’s Royal Hotel, which he bought five years ago. As a result, he’s plugged in to politics in the County, as they call it there.
For years, folks in the County have been railing without success against the White Pines wind turbines. The municipality didn’t want the turbines (due to aesthetic and environmental concerns, among others), but the Liberal government did. You might have thought that having a former Liberal finance minister on your side would grab your cause some attention from the Liberal government.
You’d have been wrong.
“They’d listen very politely, but whenever I called back to get an update on things, for some reason, my calls were given little more than non-committal niceties,” Sorbara told me.
A further indignity was that the Independent Electricity Systems Operator gave final approval to the project during the election campaign. It’s a well-known convention in parliamentary democracies that no decisions of significance — particularly contentious ones — are made during election campaigns. The government at such times is considered a mere “caretaker” of the public’s business. Yet this controversial project was given the go-ahead.
Then the Tories won the election, and on Tuesday, MPP Todd Smith — now the County’s man in the cabinet — found himself in front of a bank of microphones announcing that the new government’s first order of business would be to kill the wind project. The PCs had done in just a few days what the Liberals refused to do for years.
Item 2: Part of Sorbara’s new life includes a role as chancellor of York University — yes, the same York University that has been beset by months-long CUPE strikes. The Liberals declined to try to bring in back-to-work legislation to end the strikes until it was too late. The PCs have said that they will enact such legislation during the current (and rare) summer sitting.
“That is the right thing to do for our students, who have been dramatically inconvenienced by this strike,” says Sorbara.
Item 3: Cap and trade. The former finance minister was never a big fan of this approach to combatting climate change. The public has little understanding of it, too many sectors in the economy are exempt from it, and although it’s raised $2 billion for green-energy projects, the Tories successfully demonized it during the election campaign and now intend to get rid of it.
“I’d have preferred a transparent, easy-to-understand carbon tax,” Sorbara says. “I won’t be sorry to see cap and trade go.”
Why tell this story? Because I suspect most people believe that when the Liberals are in power, they pay special attention to things that people connected to their party want. Same goes for the Tories — the expectation is, they’ll give greater consideration to issues that people connected to former PC governments care about.
But every now and then, you find a story that defies conventional wisdom. In this case, you even begin to wonder who Greg Sorbara voted for in last month’s election.
“That’s easy,” he says. “I’ve been a Liberal for nearly four decades, and that’s not going to change. But the Tories are now in power, and I want them to do what’s best for Ontario. It seems to me they’re off to a pretty good start.”
May we have a moment of your time?
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