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How firefighters beat politicians at their own game: Cohn
Firefighters are the most successful lobbyists in Ontario, outsmarting and outmuscling all rivals.
Feb. 18, 2016
Martin Regg Cohn

Ontario’s most powerful lobby group isn’t the mighty Beer Store. Nor the big donors from the construction industry.

No, the unrivalled success story in sweet-talking our provincial politicians focuses on Ontario’s firefighters — a group with far less money than its richer rivals in the influence sweepstakes.

No one can compete with the track record of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) in persuading the government of the day to get its way. When first responders seek a response, they don’t give up until the government gives in.

On Thursday, Queen’s Park will move forward on legislation recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a “presumptive” hazard for firefighters and other first-responders (including police and paramedics).

It may be a laudable cause, but it’s hardly the first time the union has lit a fire under the government’s agenda.

Two years ago, its lobbying campaign persuaded Kathleen Wynne’s government to recognize six types of cancers automatically “presumed” to be work-related (retroactive to 1960).

In 2007, Dalton McGuinty brought in a law streamlining compensation for firefighters who suffer heart attacks or other job-related cancers related to their work.

And in 2005, McGuinty’s government helped erect a monument to fallen firefighters. It also brought in mandatory retirement ages for firefighters.

No one doubts firefighters do heroic work in a high-risk work environment. But few appreciate the extent to which they also excel in a high-stakes political environment.

The OPFFA, which represents more than 11,000 firefighters, gave $7,415 to the Liberals in 2013.

The secret to their success is a combination of brains and brawn that allows them to outsmart and outhustle the higher-priced help among rival lobbyists. They don’t just kill politicians with kindness, they also deliver muscle.

The OPFFA’s campaign to win the hearts and minds of Liberal politicians turned heads in the 2007 election, when union members donned yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Firefighters for McGuinty” — flanking the premier protectively at campaign stops.

Fanning out across the province, they served as photogenic backdrops at photo-ops — and helpfully blocked the shots of photographers when an anti-tax mascot dubbed “Fibber” stalked the premier. Again in the 2011 election, they deployed a yellow RV painted with a “Firefighters for McGuinty” banner, hitting more than 60 campaign stops and drowning out protesters when needed.

Belatedly, the opposition Progressive Conservatives and NDP are trying to crash the firefighters’ longstanding love affair with the Liberals. New Democrat MPP Cheri DiNovo embraced the cause of PTSD by proposing legislation forcing the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to acknowledge the problem.

Shortly after becoming PC leader, Patrick Brown joined the call for the governing Liberals to take action. Like McGuinty, he was made a “honorary firefighter” for his support as an MP from Barrie. Arriving at Queen’s Park in 2015, he personally welcomed firefighters to the legislature and raised the issue in question period.

On its merits, there are compelling arguments for granting first responders the presumption that they suffered PTSD because of workplace events. Suicide rates are higher, and early interventions can save lives — not to mention money — if the diagnosis is accepted without wasting time on proving what seems obvious.

A slow first response by the Liberals — they convened a conference on first-responders and PTSD — gave the opposition an opening to hound them. Now that Queen’s Park is moving forward, following the lead of Alberta and Manitoba, the rival parties are jockeying for position.

Can Brown break the Liberal stranglehold, or are firefighters merely stringing him along — poised to break his heart at election time by returning to the familiar embrace of the governing party? Many Tories worry that he’s wasting his time wooing a union that has won so much from the Liberals already.

Either way, the PCs have a lot of catching up to do, as a defiant Labour Minister Kevin Flynn taunted in the legislature this week:

“I will note that in the history of civilization, the PC Party has raised this issue three times. Now, all of a sudden, they’re champions of PTSD.”

Setting aside the hyperbole, the minister’s partisan jab made a broader point:

So persuasive are firefighters in advancing their agenda that the real fight isn’t with politicians, but among them. Whichever party ultimately wins political credit, the firefighters’ victory is a foregone conclusion.