Loading articles...

Tory Infighting In Two Key GTA Ridings

Liberal MP Paul Szabo rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct.5, 2009.

While the Conservatives look for Liberal blood in the Toronto-area, the party has had to contend with bad blood within its own ranks in a pair of prime suburban ridings.

The tensions involve Stella Ambler, a Conservative candidate with connections that go right up to the finance minister’s office.

In Bramalea-Gore-Malton, where Ambler ran in the 2008 federal election, infighting over control of campaign funds dragged on for nearly a year.

In nearby Mississauga South, currently held by Liberal Paul Szabo, longtime Conservative Hugh Arrison and his supporters allege he was kept out of running for the nomination to make way for Ambler last summer.

Conservatives in a smattering of ridings elsewhere in Canada have made similar complaints about head office meddling in nominations, while the party maintains the rules are always respected.

Supporters of Ambler, meanwhile, say Arrison is an embittered failed candidate who had trouble co-operating with party officials.

Both suburban ridings outside of Toronto have been targeted by the Tories as ripe for poaching from the Liberals. The party has been bullish on the Greater Toronto Area since former Ontario police chief Julian Fantino took the riding of Vaughan away from the Liberals in a fall byelection.

Several party sources say there had been bad feelings between Ambler and some Conservative members in Bramalea-Gore-Malton before she moved to Mississauga South.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press show how in early June 2009 the outgoing board of directors for the riding — which included Ambler’s husband — voted to send $30,000 in anticipated Elections Canada rebates to the party rather than into the local association’s coffers.

Ambler, who was working at the time as the director of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s regional office in Toronto, had said she would not run for the Tory nomination in Bramalea-Gore-Malton again.

“The party’s cheque for $30,000 should be payable to the Conservative Fund of Canada and sent directly to (regional organizer) Karma Macgregor,” Ambler wrote in a June 9 email to her outgoing financial agent.

That didn’t sit well with the new board elected only two weeks later, which immediately called for the money to be redirected back to local bank accounts.

“Several comments were made as to the reason why this decision was made to deliberately hurt the EDA (electoral district association) when it is the board’s and the candidate’s role to enhance the EDA’s election chances,” then-president Ravinder Athwal wrote to Ambler’s financial agent following the meeting.

The money was ultimately delivered back to the local riding association in April 2010. Elections Canada said the cheque was cut in January that year.

“We felt betrayed — the entire board felt extremely betrayed and was really disgusted,” said one local Conservative who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That money did belong to the EDA.”

Ambler referred all questions to Conservative party spokesman Fred Delorey. He said the funds were sent to the riding association from her campaign within the appropriate amount of time.

A friend of Ambler, meanwhile, said the riding association had plenty of money in the bank already. The friend said Ambler has been the victim of an “old boy’s club” and riding officials who had personal beefs with Ambler.

“You’ve got a group of people who have it in for Stella, and they’re playing petty games,” said the friend, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Local party members also demanded repayment of a contract awarded to a lobby and public-relations firm with party ties, for which services were never rendered.

Ambler and the outgoing board had also made another decision in the summer of 2009, commissioning a $7,455 contract from Crestview Public Affairs for “research and analysis services.”

By the fall, with no report in hand, the riding association demanded the money back.

“It does not seem that Crestview Public Affairs is interested in honouring its business contract with us, by you missing another opportunity to explain to us why after six months you have not delivered our report,” wrote then riding vice-president Graham Crowson, going on to threaten legal action.

The funds were reimbursed to the party shortly afterward. Messages left with Crestview president Mark Spiro, a Conservative campaign strategist and former provincial adviser to Flaherty, were not returned.

Delorey said the contract was awarded to do research on the political landscape in the riding at a time when there seemed to be a risk of an election, but ultimately Crestview postponed the work when that threat subsided.

“I guess the EDA decided they just wanted the money back so Crestview gave the money back instead of doing the research later,” said Delorey. He could not comment on whether Crestview had explained the delay to the Bramalea-Gore-Malton board.

That same summer of 2009, Hugh Arrison in Mississauga South was starting to get bad vibes about the nomination in his riding.

Arrison had lost the 2008 federal election to Liberal incumbent Paul Szabo, but wanted to run for the nomination again. Arrison says he was called to a meeting in the summer of 2009 by Macgregor, the Greater Toronto Area Tory organizer.

Arrison says Macgregor asked him not to run for the nomination. Macgregor, now an aide to Tory Senator Con Di Nino, said she would have to check her notes about whether she met with Arrison, but did not return messages.

Delorey said he could not comment on the details of a nomination. But a party source says Arrison was regarded inside the last campaign as unco-operative and a poor candidate.

Arrison refutes that view, saying he had lots of support within the party and even got a call from Flaherty in the days after the 2008 election congratulating him on his showing and encouraging him to run again. He came within 2,100 votes of defeating Szabo.

Flaherty’s office did not deny the call, but said the minister did not endorse any one candidate for the subsequent nomination in Mississauga South.

Arrison refused to step aside after the meeting with Macgregor, and soon afterward began hearing that Ambler wanted to run in the riding.

He was ultimately disqualified by the party on what he perceived as a technicality: using the party logo on material sent to prospective party members.

Arrison says the material was not sent during the actual nomination period, which is what the rules refer to, but the party’s governing body rejected an appeal.

Ambler was acclaimed as the party’s candidate in Mississauga South in June 2010. Arrison maintains a website, still in Conservative colours, that describes his disappointment with the party.

“There’s certainly an awful lot of people that feel really disenfranchised, who feel very, very upset,” Arrison said in an interview.

“I guess I’ve had three or four hundred emails, lots of people who are even going to change their votes. It’s definitely an issue because people really don’t like it when you’re told what you’re going to do and your vote is completely ignored. That’s the big issue. Do the people really count? Do members even matter, and apparently they don’t.”

Robert Boyle, the president of the Conservative association in Mississauga South, says he has no sympathy for Arrison’s position and believes the process was fair and open. He said the outlook is good for the next election.

“I think we have in Stella an outstanding candidate who’s totally committed,” said Boyle. “She’s experienced and I’m absolutely confident that the riding will go back to where it belongs.”