federal finance minister paul Martin is working himself into a frenzy. He's on the dais at Le Jardin Banquet Hall with about a dozen other provincial and federal Grits who have come to Woodbridge on this humid spring evening to bolster Greg Sorbara's by-election bid to knock off the Tories in Vaughan-King-Aurora, a key notch in Mike Harris's 905 blue belt.Martin's barnburner speech is being delivered to a gathering of mostly older Italians. The frantic finance minister punctuates key messages -- Build health care! Preserve the environment! Attack child poverty! -- by thrusting his arm into the air just inches in front of a dazed Sorbara, the current provincial party president.
First elected in 1985 as part of the David Peterson wave, Sorbara is a former minister who dropped out of politics in 1995 and ran a minor-league baseball franchise for a while.
He's also had a hand in his family's land development and property management businesses, which are operated primarily by his brothers Edward and Joseph. The latter happens to be a staunch Tory supporter. The Sorbara Group owns several Toronto highrises.
At the moment, Greg Sorbara is the great Grit hope. But he also could be a force that pulls the party further right in its quest for power at Queen's Park.
On the face of it, this rally is an opportunity to buck up the local ground troops and sustain momentum leading up to the June 28 vote.
But Sorbara's re-emergence into Ontario Liberal politics is also about another precious and troubling political commodity -- money. The Liberals don't have a lot of it, and compared to the Tories and even the sad-sack NDP, they suck at raising it. The cold, hard political reality is that the Liberals will need bags of loot if they hope to send Harris packing.
The Ontario Tories, of course, have raised unprecedented millions over the last several years and are masters at spending it on campaign messaging.
"You're never going to be able to raise as much or more than the Tories," says Liberal MPP Michael Bryant moments before Martin's appearance. "But all we can do is try to be competitive so we can get our message out, and Sorbara is going to be doing that."
Sorbara was elected party president a couple of years ago primarily to address the money drought and attract more corporate contributions. Although he has established a new party fundraising machine, so far the money hasn't exactly been pouring in.
After his speech Sorbara admits to NOW that he's not been "as successful as I want to be" as a money spinner, adding that "it's important for us to make sure that when the next general election comes around we have the resources to fight effectively. As president, that's part of my responsibility."
It's no secret that the provincial Liberals are in dismal financial shape.
According to a recent report by York University professor Robert MacDermid, the Liberals are still $2.7 million in debt. The 2000 financial figures for the three central parties show that the Grits pulled in a disappointing $1.6 million in contributions, while the Tories grabbed $6.9 million and the NDP took in $2.1 million.
MacDermid notes that in every year since 1995 the Tories have been the recipient of 80 per cent of corporate contributions to all political parties. Money follows power, and as long as the Tories have it, Bay Street will keep cutting cheques for Harris.
"The Liberals' contribution total for 2000 and the party's overall financial health point to real future problems for the party," MacDermid notes in his report, adding -- and this is a troubling prospect for ordinary citizens who may end up electing the Grits to lead the province out of the Harris nightmare -- "If they are to make inroads on the Tory corporate funding advantage, the Liberals will have to put forward policies that are more attractive to business than is currently the case."
To be sure, Paul Martin didn't show up in Woodbridge just to bolster local hacks. He was also reassuring corporate Ontario that it will be business as usual under the untested McGuinty (who was conspicuously absent from the rally) and Sorbara.
"We don't get what we deserve from the business community in terms of our ability to manage the finances," Liberal MPP Gerry Phillips insists. "But Greg will add another element of confidence for those who know that we have to run the economy."
Sorbara's fellow Liberals portray him as a smart, successful businessperson with a strong social conscience -- a Liberal wonder boy.
After dropping out of politics in 1995, Sorbara focused on his business interests and his passion for baseball.
MPP Mike Colle, who has been the party's point person whipping up opposition to development on the Oak Ridges Moraine, dismisses the suggestion that Sorbara's business creds and his money mandate will pull the caucus more to the right.
"People forget that this guy took off after law school and lived in the Kootenays (in BC)," says Colle, who's known Sorbara for 30 years. "He's not your cookie-cutter type individual. He's very, very independent."
At the moment, Sorbara is saying all the right things. He supports a development freeze on the moraine (although "there might be some instances where development might be able to proceed..."). And while he sent his own kids to private school, he says he would "roll back" the Tories private education tax rebate.
Testing, I ask Sorbara if he would also roll back the despised (and misleadingly named) Tenant Protection Act.
"No, not at all," he replies. "If anything, the Tenant Protection Act may need some strengthening. I can't say I've read every clause of it. But our interest as a party is in making sure that tenants have appropriate protections in what is now a very, very tight tenant market."
If Sorbara is going to build corporate confidence in his party and attract the big bucks, he might want to start with his siblings.
Greg Sorbara admits his brother Joseph is a long-time Tory supporter. And a review of the contribution disclosures in the former riding of York Centre and Vaughan-King-Aurora reveals that the candidate's brothers have been generous Tory donors.
The 1995 disclosures show a $500 contribution to Palladini from Joseph, who is also down for a $750 contribution to Al Palladini in the 1999 campaign. Edward gave $250 to Palladini, and NHD Land Developments, a Sorbara company, gave $500 to the Tory riding association in York Centre.
"My brother Joe has been a Progressive Conservative for years," says Sorbara. "While I was actively involved in politics he certainly turned down the volume of his participation. But when I retired in 1995, he became an active fundraiser for the Conservatives and for Al Palladini in particular. I'm not at all embarrassed about that. We're brothers, we share a business relationship, but we differ on politics."