Greg Sorbara helped transform the Ontario Liberal Party from hapless also-ran into a political juggernaut that has won four straight elections in Canada’s largest province.
Sorbara, along with a tiny band of fellow partisans, dragged the party out of opposition and into government 11 years ago by re-inventing the Liberals as a mainstream centrist party not unlike the Progressive Conservative dynasty that ruled Ontario from 1943 until 1985.
The former party president and his confrères built a province-wide machine that recruits electable candidates of varied backgrounds, out-fundraises the Conservatives and New Democrats, and shrewdly adjusts to an always-changing political landscape by being ideologically flexible.
Now, the happy warrior is sharing the secrets of his success in a new book, The Battlefield of Ontario Politics, to be published next month by Dundurn.
His memoir is like its author: engaging and candid, with kind words and hard truths for friends and foes alike.
Despite being Dalton McGuinty’s finance minister and left-leaning right-hand man, Sorbara does not shy away from criticizing decisions he did not like.
He reveals that he considered resigning in protest from the Liberal caucus over the 2009 move to harmonize the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax.
“I felt a combination of shock, anger, and betrayal. I just couldn’t see how we could get over this. I wondered aloud to my staff and others why we had decided so early in life to commit political suicide,” he writes.
But he set aside his “personal misgivings” out fear of triggering even greater damage to the Grits.
“Any hint of resigning would have represented a body blow to both the team and the initiative. I imagined the impact of a damaging headline: ‘Sorbara resigns over HST.’ Any hint of dissension might have encouraged other Liberal MPPs to follow suit. We just couldn’t afford that.”
Sorbara devotes an entire chapter to McGuinty’s controversial scrapping of two gas-fired electricity generating plants in Oakville and Mississauga before the 2011 election, and laments how the former premier’s reputation has suffered as a result of the debacle.
“In the 150-year history of Ontario there is no precedent for the kind of vitriol and anger directed at a retiring first minister — and it is all the more offensive because of the extent to which the political mythologies about the gas plant cancellations so thoroughly trumped the truth,” he writes.
Emphasizing that local residents in both communities opposed the generators, Sorbara notes “in the aftermath of the election, in a new minority parliament, the opposition parties became determined to exploit the gas plant myths despite having supported the decisions in each case.”
He slams the Conservatives and New Democrats for “outrageous and slanderous” rhetoric and castigates a “provincial media who preferred to enhance the emerging myths rather than … report the facts.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne, whom Sorbara helped become Liberal leader last year, is also not spared his legendary candour.
“For all her good intentions, Premier Wynne did little to dispel the growing myths. Her first months in office were marked by far too much defence and far too little offence,” he writes.
“Rather than defending decisions that represented the higher standards for municipal planning in dense urban areas, she decided to apologize and to do so repeatedly. The quality of her apologies simply strengthened the misconception that the plants were cancelled for purely partisan reasons at a cost of $1 billion.”
Sorbara also chides Wynne’s predecessor for getting sidetracked by the media and opposition “feeding frenzy” and rushing out the door assumptions from the Ontario Power Authority (OPA).
“It was a mistake, in my view, for the McGuinty government to make public the early estimates generated by the OPA of the actual costs to be incurred by the cancellations,” Sorbara writes.
“The original lowball estimates of the OPA caused the government to fall into a trap and to suffer renewed political embarrassment with each succeeding upward revision of costs.”
His 222-page memoir is at its most poignant when tackling the half-baked RCMP probe of Royal Group Technologies, where he had been on the board of directors.
Sorbara’s name was mistakenly put on a Mounties’ search warrant, which forced him to briefly resign from McGuinty’s cabinet on the night before the throne speech in 2005.
But he fought back and Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer ordered his name removed from the document, enabling the premier to return him to cabinet after a seven-month hiatus.
Still, in a dark time, Sorbara said it was illuminating to see who was there for him.
“At moments such as these, some people surprise you by how quickly they disappear, while others surprise you by how unexpectedly supportive they are,” he writes.
“One such intervention touched me deeply. A few days after my resignation, I was driving home from Queen’s Park when my cell phone rang. ‘Greg, it’s Brian Mulroney calling.’ I barely knew our former prime minister, but there he was on the phone, with a strong message of support. ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,’ he said. ‘Fight back.’ For a brief moment he felt like my best friend forever.”
Another fair-minded political adversary was John Tory, then the leader of the provincial Conservatives and now the front-runner in the Oct. 27 Toronto mayoral race.
“He was incredibly gracious,” Sorbara writes of Tory. “He made it clear to his caucus that there were to be no unsubstantiated attacks on me while on the ‘disabled list.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Through political life’s lows and highs — notably his signature achievements of extending the Spadina subway line to York University and implementing Ontario Child Benefit to help needy families — he’s still much the same idealistic hippy he was in the 1960s.
Sorbara and his wife of 45-years, Kate Barlow, met in the Company of Young Canadians, two “young radicals bent on changing the world.”
They taught at-risk kids at “free schools” in Vancouver and then had six children (and 13 grandchildren) of their own.
“We were young revolutionaries,” he remembers of those trippy times.
That fiery passion for progressive change hasn’t really dimmed despite his now being a pillar of Ontario’s political establishment.
“Doing this kind of good is an opportunity that comes along only rarely,” he writes of Liberal policy efforts to help the province’s most vulnerable people.
“I’m proud of the Ontario Child Benefit. All these years later, it’s still there helping poor kids.”