CANADA

Liberal controversies

Ontario’s premier faces three abrupt resignations

PAUL KAIHLA June 19 1989
CANADA

Liberal controversies

Ontario’s premier faces three abrupt resignations

PAUL KAIHLA June 19 1989

Liberal controversies

CANADA

Ontario’s premier faces three abrupt resignations

The meeting between Ontario Premier David Peterson and one of his oldest political allies, embattled Solicitor General Joan Smith, was held discreetly in a hotel, two blocks away from Peterson’s office in the provincial legislature. For two weeks, Peterson had resisted demands by the opposition New Democrats and Conservatives—and a growing number of his own backbenchers— that he ask for Smith’s resignation because of what the opposition described as an improper visit to a provincial police detachment to inquire about the arrest of a young friend of the family. But on the afternoon of June 5, in a meeting in an upper-floor suite of Toronto’s elegant Sutton Place Hotel, Peterson presented Smith, 61, with a clear choice: either the two-term MPP could appear before a legislative committee to explain her actions—a move he recommended against—or she could resign from cabinet. Hours later, aides to the premier announced that Smith had quit. In her letter of resignation, Smith insisted that she had done nothing wrong. “I acted out of a sincere desire to do the right thing,” Smith wrote.

The departure was one of three high-profile resignations in the space of a week that focused attention on several controversies plaguing Ontario’s Liberal government. On June 2, the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Raj Anand, resigned, one day after an internal report to the government accused the agency of irregular hiring practices. And on June 8, Patricia Starr, 45, chairman of the corporation that operates Ontario Place, a provincially owned lakeside recreation park in Toronto, quit after reports that she had directed money from a charity, of which she was president, to some prominent Liberals.

Peterson appointed Starr to her $l,680-ayear post in 1987 after she had worked as a fund raiser on several Liberal campaigns. On May 31, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Starr, while she was president of the National Council of Jewish Women’s charitable foundation from 1984 to 1988, had directed $60,000 from a $251,000 fund held by the Toronto-based group to several people with Liberal connections. Under the Income Tax Act, political contributions cannot be made by charitable organizations. But according to the Globe, Starr authorized a contribution of $5,300 from the fund to Willowdale MP James Peterson, brother of the premier, during his successful 1987 bid for a federal nomination.

Another $1,000 went to Elvio Del Zotto, chairman of the Toronto-based construction firm Tridel Enterprises Inc., to support his successful 1988 campaign for the presidency of the federal Liberals’ Ontario wing. Both Peterson and Del Zotto said that they were not

aware that any donations had come from the charity. And Starr told Maclean ’s that some National Council money was used to buy tickets for political fund-raising events, but that donations had not been involved and no political party had been favored.

The political storm that forced Anand from his $90,000-a-year post erupted when two of the rights agency’s commissioners denounced him for rejecting several visible-minority candidates while hiring seven white applicants for management positions last year. An internal

government report concluded that there was “no evidence of discrimination, favoritism, or competition-rigging in the hiring process.” But it criticized the commission for not trying hard enough to recruit visible minorities for senior posts. Anand, 34, an East Indian-Canadian, said that although the inquiry vindicated him of any wrongdoing, the commission could no longer be effective under his leadership.

The Smith affair, focusing on the judgment of a cabinet minister, plainly overshadowed the others. Early on the morning of April 9, Smith, whose responsibilities included overseeing the Ontario Provincial Police, visited an OPP station at Lucan, near London, Ont. She had received a telephone call from a young friend of the family who said that her brother was in custody there after being charged with causing a disturbance. The visit was brief, and a subsequent OPP investigation to determine whether Smith had interfered in a criminal case absolved her of any wrongdoing. But when the visit became public last month—after details of the episode were released without authorization to a Toronto newspaper—the opposition demanded Smith’s resignation, then walked out of the legislature on May 29, bringing its business to a halt for eight days until Smith resigned.

Government officials said that the decision to confront Smith clearly did not come easily to Peterson. Smith and her husband, Donald, president of London-based Ellis-Don Ltd., have been personal friends and, more lately, political backers of the 45-year-old premier—whose home is also in London—for 25 years. But Peterson’s initial defence—that Smith’s visit to the Lucan station was an isolated act of human concern—weakened after the Globe reported on June 1 that she had also called a London OPP detachment in May, 1988, after the twoyear-old son of a former caretaker who was visiting Peterson’s residence wandered away from his mother and accidentally drowned in the swimming pool. The opposition charged that such actions were intolerable for a minister in charge of the OPP.

With his Liberals holding 94 of the legislature’s 130 seats, Peterson does not have to call an election until 1992. And his government consistently scores highly in popular opinion polls. Last week, despite the setbacks, Peterson declared, “We have a lot of momentum.” But even with the Smith and Anand problems apparently settled, that momentum could become difficult to maintain: the province’s Commission on Election Finances is to decide next week whether to order a police investigation into Starr’s use of charitable funds.

PAUL KAIHLA with THERESA TEDESCO in Ottawa

PAUL KAIHLA

THERESA TEDESCO