By Tom Collins and Patrick Meagher
TORONTO — Eastern Ontario rural MPP Randy Hillier (Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston), a one-time rural Robin Hood, is a sitting independent after being booted from the Progressive Conservative Party last month for not being a team player. It’s a charge that has dogged Hillier for years.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Party president Brian Patterson recently listed Hillier’s transgressions, including: Frequently missing PC caucus meetings and having the lowest attendance of all MPPs. He said that when Hillier does show up, he’s often late and leaves early. Hillier also skipped the caucus retreat in February and the annual convention last November. Hillier has also been criticized for bad mouthing government with the news media instead of speaking within caucus or with the responsible minister.
Patterson also wrote that Hillier’s claim that he was being muzzled is not true. “If Mr. Hillier wishes to have a place in the Ontario PC Caucus, my advice would be for him to accept responsibility for his past conduct and begin to demonstrate he is willing to change and be part of a team, rather than engaging in a public relations exercise in order to attempt to paint himself as some sort of victim.”
Hillier was easily re-elected in 2018 with 26,194 votes (about 52 per cent), ahead of second-place NDP candidate Ramsey Hart with 15,349 votes (30.5 per cent). Hillier has been the riding’s MPP since 2007.
The riding association wants to meet with Ontario Premier Doug Ford about allowing Hillier back into the party.
Hillier listed his own reasons for getting the boot, drawing a different picture. He said he refused to breach the oath of office and disregarded orders to seek permission before speaking to the media. He said he also refused to join in standing ovations in the legislative assembly over routine matters and declined to do a video supporting the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause. He also noted that the party was not pleased that he raised concerns “of possible illegal and unregistered lobbying by close friends and advisors employed by Premier Ford.”
If there’s anything anyone has learned about Hillier, it’s that he never goes away quietly. Sheep farmer and former Eastern Ontario MPP Gary Fox, of Prince Edward County, said that Hillier “is a pretty sharp boy and he’s not done yet. He’ll make it rough for them.”
Fox added there is fault on both sides.
“I was a guy that didn’t agree with everything that was going on,” Fox said. “I voiced my opinion, and at the same time, I was still able to remain friends with the premier and the rest of them.”
Even some of Hillier’s fellow PC MPPs say he is not a team player, including Lorne Coe (Whitby), and Darryl Kramp (Hastings-Lennox-Addington).
Hillier was one of the original founding members of the Ontario Landowners Association in 2005 and prior to that was instrumental in launching the so-called Rural Revolution that attracted a lot of farmer attention because it focused on fighting back against government over-reach. Their demonstrations are now almost legendary, including closing down Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill while auctioneer Preston Cull held a mock sale of cattle that were paraded into Ottawa. Their antics included selling illegal beef, piling up hay bales at the entrance to the Ministry of Natural Resources office in Kemptville to force it to close down for a day and burning effigies of politicians.
Former OLA president Tom Black said Hillier and the organization had a falling out about a decade ago and Hillier would have nothing to do with the association after that. “Anybody that went to talk to him and said they were with the Landowners, he wouldn’t help them,” said Black. “We disagreed on a lot of stuff and he didn’t like that.”
However, Black agrees with Hillier that backroom politics are getting out of hand. Black believes politicians should have some freedom to voice their own opinions. “That’s why (the OLA) got into politics. It’s because of that insider trading sort of thing that’s going on there,” he said. “We think Doug Ford is a pretty good guy and we think he’s getting really bad advice.”
Black said Hillier’s hardheadedness is both his strength and his weakness. It’s great when he’s fighting for you but tough when you’re on the other side seeking common ground, he said.
Landowners association founder and Lanark crop farmer John Vanderspank was side-by-side with Hillier in pulling off countless demonstrations. When they announced they were re-opening the U.S. border to Canadian cattle during the BSE crisis, it attracted a lot of media attention and speculation that if they really tried crossing the border with cattle, U.S. customs might shoot both men on sight. They pulled off the stunt by strapping a fibreglass bull to the back of a pickup truck and crossed the international bridge at Johnstown with a caravan of dozens of farm tractors. They were turned back at the American side but got what they wanted — their soundbite on the six o’clock news.
The momentum for the movement derailed when Hillier decided the Landowners should align with the Conservative Party. Many members, including Vanderspank, disagreed. That’s when Hillier’s bigger plan to run for office was out of the bag. Vanderspank remembers being asked by then PC leader John Tory if he thought Hillier could win the nomination and an election. Vanderspank recalled that he said Hillier could win both but “if he is in the party, he’ll cause the leader, whoever it is, no end of grief because he wants to be the leader.”
And that’s what happened, Vanderspank said. Hillier helped bring down former leader Patrick Brown and he’s at it again, he said. Hillier held a press conference in his Queen’s Park office on March 26 in which he complained about a “culture of fear” in the Ford government.
When asked if he thought Hillier deserved to get the boot, Vanderspank replied, “He wasn’t doing anything to earn his money.”