The Inside Agenda Blog

The Original Sin

by Steve Paikin Friday March 14, 2014

At the end of the day, why was long-time Liberal stalwart Christine Innes denied the right to compete for the nomination in the upcoming Trinity-Spadina by-election?

I don't know this for a fact, but I'm betting that a nasty, internecine fight within the Ontario Liberal family from almost two decades ago was highly instrumental in what's transpired.

First, the quick background on the current situation.

Given that the riding boundaries are going to change for the next federal election in 2015, it is apparently Liberal Party policy to avoid at all costs a scenario where two sitting MPs would have to challenge each other for the same seat.

Any candidate seeking to run in a by-election before next year's general election had been told that.  I wrote about this potential problem in another recent blog post.

Enter Christine Innes. Innes had twice lost to Olivia Chow in Trinity-Spadina and was looking forward to contesting the seat again in the upcoming by-election, caused by Chow’s resignation to run for Toronto mayor.

But sources say two things happened. Innes declined to sign an agreement (that all prospective by-election contestants needed to sign) promising she wouldn’t challenge a sitting MP (read: Chrystia Freeland, the just-elected MP in Toronto Centre) in the ensuing general election.

And beyond that, the Liberal brass heard disquieting stories that Innes’ husband, Tony Ianno, himself a former MP for the riding, had told some fresh-faced, new party volunteers that unless they supported his wife, their future in the Liberal Party was toast.

Officials in the leader’s office stepped in. Enough was enough. They feared a repeat of the kind of hardball politics that nearly killed the Liberal Party during the Jean Chretien-Paul Martin feuds.

They pulled the plug on Innes’ campaign and said she was no longer allowed to be a candidate at all. Innes released a statement yesterday expressing her shock and sadness at the turn of events and denied the allegations.

Why has Justin Trudeau’s office reacted so forcefully? Here’s my guess.

Back in the mid-1990s, Ontario Premier Mike Harris came to power vowing to get rid of several MPPs at Queen’s Park. The “Fewer Politicians Act” saw Ontario adopt the same riding boundaries as federal MPs had. The result was messy. As Ontario contracted from 130 provincial ridings to just 99, there were several instances where two sitting MPPs had to run against each other for nominations for the 1999 provincial election.

(As a side note, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s father Doug Sr. lost his job that way. He was an Etobicoke MPP who ran against fellow PC MPP Chris Stockwell as their two seats merged into one. Stockwell won and Ford’s political career was over).

But the grand daddy of all nomination brouhahas took place in York Centre in the northwest part of Toronto. Monte Kwinter, who’d been a Liberal MPP since 1985, and Annamarie Castrilli, a rookie MPP since 1995, both decided they wanted to contest York Centre.

Both brandished maps showing competing claims on how the new riding was the logical place for them to plant their flag. Dalton McGuinty, then the opposition leader, asked the universally liked and respected MPP Gerry Phillips to negotiate a solution. Kwinter, in fact, had the better claim, given his longer service in the legislature, and the fact that the new riding comprised more of his old riding than Castrilli’s did.

But Castrilli couldn’t be mollified. She had recently contested the 1996 Liberal leadership that McGuinty won, and in fact, dropped off the ballot to support McGuinty. She probably felt she was entitled to the leader’s support, especially since Kwinter backed Gerard Kennedy, McGuinty’s chief opponent.

Eventually, McGuinty told Castrilli she had to stand down. He couldn’t abide a situation where two of his sitting MPPs were challenging each other, when there were Tories and New Democrats to fight.

But Castrilli refused. She ran against Kwinter for the nomination and lost.

But the bad feelings and melodrama didn’t end. Castrilli quit the party and a mere days before the 1999 election, she announced she was running for Mike Harris’ Conservatives against Gerard Kennedy in Parkdale-High Park. She lost badly, by almost 11,000 votes. Harris gave her a job in his office after her election loss, but when that ended, she disappeared from public view. Kwinter, of course, is still the MPP for York Centre, wildly popular in his own riding, having won eight elections in a row, and next week will turn 83 years old, adding daily to his record as the oldest Ontario MPP of all time. (And he’s already nominated to run again in the next election).

That “fight within the family” was awful for the Ontario Liberals. Inner-party fights are always the worst. And some of the people around Justin Trudeau today no doubt remember those days.

I’m betting they saw a repeat coming, this time between Innes and Freeland, and they wanted to ensure it didn’t happen.

And that’s why a two-time federal Liberal candidate today is persona non grata in the party that she and her husband have worked for, for much of their adult life.

As one British journalist once said when Margaret Thatcher was forced out as prime minister, “Every political career ends in tears".

Image credits: Andrew Rusk/Flickr