What ever happened to Steve Clark? There was a time, not so long ago, when people generally liked and respected our local M.P.P., and, of course, many still do. No matter what your party political allegiance, and even if you had no fixed address in that arena, you could recognize a good representative for your area, a decent man who was a natural politician in the best sense of that maligned word. He was a regular and welcome visitor to North Grenville, remembered names and faces in a quite remarkable way, and gave the impression of being someone who was enjoying his job taking care of the needs and marking the milestones of his constituents.
When he was appointed to the provincial Cabinet as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, it seemed like a high point in his political career to date. From being the youngest mayor in Canada during his time as Mayor of Brockville, to his apprenticeship under Bob Runciman, and on to his election to replace him as M.P.P. in the 2010 by-election with almost 67% of the votes, and then on to cabinet after the last election, Steve Clark was a man on the rise. And most people around here would say it was a well-deserved rise, too.
But now it looks as though entering Doug Ford’s government may have been the worst misstep in that brilliant career, at least as far as North Grenville is concerned. And it all started to go wrong with the prison.
Cabinet solidarity is a serious restriction on any Minister of the Crown, and decisions have to be supported without any public dissension, no matter what the reaction of constituents. I have no insight or inside source for this, but I do get the feeling that the decision to impose a prison on Kemptville is not something Steve Clark is happy about these days. “And let us not talk falsely now: it is a prison, and it was imposed”. Ever since local opposition to the move developed and organized, it seems Steve Clark doesn’t like to be seen too frequently or publicly in this region. In the past, his excellent and thoroughly able and professional Assistant, Michael Jiggins, guided Steve through a busy schedule of appearances and events, making sure everyone knew when and where Steve would be at all times.
However, Michael is no longer with Steve, for whatever reason, and one of his new Assistants, Doug Brewer, is simply not up to Michael’s standards. There seems to be a lack of communication between him and Steve, given the rather odd phrasing of his recent email to me following the equally odd remarks Steve made in an interview about the prison. Instead of clarifying the statements published, Mr. Brewer responded: “Minister Clark was likely referring to the people from outside of North Grenville…” What does that mean: “likely referring”? Doesn’t Steve Clark’s Executive Assistant know what his boss was referring to?
Something far more worrying is the manner in which Steve has tried to pass off responsibility for dealing with the opposition to the prison on to the shoulders of Mayor Peckford and Council here. Even though it is his colleagues who imposed the prison, his statements constantly refer to the North Grenville Council, as though they were somehow involved in making the decision, or were in a position to stop it unilaterally. That is not the attitude of the pre-ministerial Steve Clark. Even when he appeared at a virtual meeting of Council including talks with the opposition groups, he basically sat silently when Council was being attacked, never speaking a word in mitigation, or explaining their respective roles and jurisdictions in the matter.
These days, Steve’s presence in North Grenville is often only known in retrospect, when the latest photo op pictures are sent out to the media. This is not the Steve Clark who has been known and respected by all shades of political opinion since 2010. Certainly, the responsibilities of office constrain him. Nor is this particular government one he necessarily feels comfortable in. The PCs are not a homogenous group, and never have been. For every Bill Davis (“In Ontario, bland works”), there’s a Doug Ford. For every Joe Clark, there’s a Stephen Harper. I don’t think Steve Clark belongs to the same strain of Conservative as Doug Ford, and Ford’s cabinet is an amalgam of many threads inside the party. The price of ministerial status can be high and may even include having to shut up and go along, no matter what your personal feelings are on an issue. This may be a completely inaccurate take on Steve’s position and attitude, but he can’t say one way or another. Or rather, he can only say that all is sweetness and light, and that he supports every word of his Leader. That’s the cost.
But, remembering Steve Clark’s support of local causes, from KDH to the Library, from the ServiceOntario closure scare to the expansion of CR43, it is hard to see him so politically correct when it comes to the prison and so unfair to a community and Council he knows so well, and obviously likes sincerely. He appears to be stuck in the middle, between his position in Cabinet and many, perhaps most, of the people of North Grenville.
And here’s the really sad part: he is still the same Steve Clark under that ministerial hat, and cannot be enjoying his rise to power as much as he hoped. Of course, there’s no real danger to his political career. This riding has never elected anything other than a Conservative since Confederation, other than between 1867 and 1871, when a coalition government ruled in the Ontario Legislature. There may be no real political price to pay for Steve’s new persona, but he has already paid heavily in his relations with the people of North Grenville. And that is really sad.