OTTAWA – Jason Kenney, long considered an aspirant to the Conservative leadership, has become the first federal cabinet minister to call on Rob Ford to resign, accusing the infamous mayor of shaming the city of Toronto.
“I will say as an elected official that I think Mr. Ford has brought dishonour to public office and the office of mayor and his city,” Kenney, the employment and social justice minister, said Tuesday as he left the House of Commons.
“I wished he had taken a leave of absence some time ago to go and deal with his personal problems. But not having done that, I personally think he should step aside and stop dragging the city of Toronto through this terrible embarrassment.”
Kenney went far further than his boss did a day earlier, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office issued a tepid slap on the wrist to Ford after weeks of silence on a series of surreal antics that have turned the mayor into an international laughingstock.
It’s not the first time Kenney has broken ranks with the Prime Minister’s Office.
Earlier this month, Kenney defended Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, when the prime minister was depicting him as the sole architect of the “deception” surrounding the repayment of Sen. Mike Duffy’s disallowed expenses.
“I know Nigel Wright to be a person of good faith, of competence, with high ethical standards,” Kenney said on the very day that Harper was to deliver a key speech to Conservative party faithful in Calgary.
On the ongoing Ford spectacle, Harper has had nothing to say publicly about a spectacular fall from grace for the Toronto mayor that at times seems lifted from the script of an episode of “Trailer Park Boys.”
It’s left Harper and the Conservatives vulnerable to ridicule in the House of Commons, where NDP MPs have been mischievously chanting “Rob Ford” whenever a Tory stands up to speak.
On Tuesday, Justin Trudeau joined the fray.
“I will take no lessons in accountability from a man whose fishing buddy is Rob Ford,” Trudeau said during question period in response to Harper’s attempts to deflect his queries on the Senate expenses scandal.
On Monday, Toronto city council stripped away key powers from Ford, the prime minister’s mightiest political ally in Ontario. The statement from the PMO made no mention of Ford’s name, however — only Trudeau’s.
So what did the tough-on-crime Canadian government have to say about the crack-smoking, drug-buying tax-fighter described on Tuesday by The Atlantic as a “one-man absurdist highlight reel”?
Not much, beyond conceding that the allegations against Ford are “troubling” while reminding the public that Trudeau — a champion of legalizing marijuana — has admitted smoking pot while a sitting MP.
“Our government does not condone illegal drug use, especially by elected officials while in office, including Justin Trudeau,” Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald said in a craftily worded statement.
The Conservatives, eyeing their re-election prospects in 2015, are loathe to anger the so-called Ford Nation, that fierce battalion of Ford supporters in the outlying regions of Toronto who still back the mayor. Their allegiance to their leader keeps him perched in a higher spot in public opinion polls than where Harper is currently languishing.
A slew of Ford supporters worked for the federal Conservatives during the 2011 federal election campaign. The mayor’s muscle in the Toronto suburbs was a boon to his federal colleagues during that election, helping them win several hard-fought races in the city’s outlying ridings.
The man defeated by Ford in the 2010 municipal election said Tuesday that Harper, however, should tread carefully in aligning himself too closely to the mayor.
“Harper’s pathway to re-election includes holding onto seats in Ontario, including several seats in Toronto, and those seats are much more in play now because of the prime minister’s dance partner being so badly weakened in Toronto,” said George Smitherman, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister.
Smitherman described Harper’s statement on Ford as a continuation of “sheer, petty politics” that likely doesn’t resonate with many voters.
“I don’t think most people put crack cocaine and marijuana on the same plane,” he said. “And most people are also very concerned about Ford’s admission that he has been drinking and driving. Ford’s personal activities do not align with the espoused values of the Conservative party.”
At an event Tuesday to mark Universal Children’s Day, Justice Minister Peter MacKay also took aim at Trudeau when asked whether Ford was a good role model for children.
“Any politician who is active in public life that is admitting to drug use has to do some serious reflection on what message that sends, so that includes Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Ford,” he said. “It’s very troubling and unfortunate is all I can say.”
It all makes for a tricky political situation for Harper.
Even in the event Ford Nation has been diminished in the wake of the Ford scandal, the prime minister will need conservative Ford supporters if he’s going to make further inroads in the riding-rich Toronto area.
The two politicians have had a chummy relationship over the years, even going fishing together at Harrington Lake, Que., shortly after the federal Tories won re-election. The prime minister later attended a Toronto barbecue hosted by Ford, and praised the mayor.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Tuesday he remains close to the mayor.
“Of course he’s my friend,” he said. “You don’t have a friend one day and not a friend the next day. What kind of person is that?”