Breaking his silence, MPP Randy Hillier has warned of a “culture of fear and intimidation” in Premier Doug Ford’s government after Hillier was ousted from the Progressive Conservative caucus.
Hillier, who was suspended from caucus one day after a private meeting with Ford where he outlined some of his concerns, is now in talks with integrity commissioner J. David Wake about alleged “illegal and unregistered lobbying” of the Conservatives.
He did not expand upon his claims, which the Tories strongly deny, saying he is continuing discussions with Wake about whether there will be an investigation into any lobbying.
“This is not the government that people expected. Certainly not the government I expected,” said the Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MPP, who was first elected in 2007.
During a 38-minute news conference Tuesday with 22 journalists packed into his Queen’s Park office, Hillier also said his former Tory colleagues are cowed by “unelected” staffers in Ford’s office, such as chief of staff Dean French.
“If there is a reliance on fear or coercion to manage people, don’t be surprised if there will be turmoil,” said the maverick MPP, making his return to the legislature after dealing with a family matter.
But government house leader Todd Smith said Hillier’s charges are baseless.
“Everything he was saying was wrong,” said Smith, who conceded that there are sometimes lively discussions in caucus, but insisted that MPPs are free to speak their minds.
“We’re the world of politics here, and sure, there’s going to be heated debates at times and everybody knows that. If they don’t know that then they probably shouldn’t have gotten into politics,” Smith said.
“It happens in caucus rooms. It happens in the legislature every single day. It’s just the nature of debate. But one thing I would say our party is open to is having those debates in our caucus meetings,” he said.
“Randy would know that if he showed up. When Randy did show up for caucus meetings, it was usually late and he left early.”
Hillier was initially suspended from the PC caucus on Feb. 20, after being accused of saying “yada yada yada” to parents of children with autism who had packed the public gallery in the legislature to protest recent government funding changes.
He maintained his heckle was directed at NDP MPP Monique Taylor, not the families.
The suspension came 24 hours after Hillier met privately with Ford and two aides to complain about how backbenchers were not being treated fairly by an increasingly centralized administration.
“It was the first time I ever met with Doug without having Dean French present,” Hillier said.
“We had what I thought was a wonderful, sincere conversation. He told me that he would go to bat for me.”
Even though the premier assured him he would take his concerns seriously, the independent MPP now believes that Feb. 19 meeting “was an aggravating factor or contributing factor to my removal,” suggesting speaking truth to power can be costly.
Hillier was permanently expelled from the caucus on March 15.
“I’m very disheartened and disappointed,” he said.
Sources close to the premier, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private caucus matters, said the Feb. 20 heckling incident was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
While the insider acknowledged that some Tory MPPs complain the premier’s office can be heavy-handed, he insisted there is no retribution for speaking out.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie