‘Birds of a feather’: Opposition criticize Ford’s quiet meeting with Hungary’s far-right head of state
Ontario’s opposition party leaders said it’s troubling that Premier Doug Ford quietly met with the president of Hungary’s far-right government, Katalin Novák, on Monday morning, just before the PCs introduced Bill 28, Keeping Kids in School Act, using the controversial notwithstanding clause to override constitutional collective bargaining rights.
“I am very concerned that he had that meeting. I think that the authoritarian and anti-democratic approaches that have been taken in Hungary are ones we don’t want to see in Ontario,” said interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns.
“It’s interesting that the premier would meet with the president of a country that is now considered an illiberal democracy — not upholding people’s rights — at the exact same time that the premier is taking away the charter rights of the lowest paid education workers in this province,” added Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.
Novák is a close ally of authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who nominated her for the presidency earlier this year. She was on a multi-day tour of Ontario to celebrate the province’s first Hungarian Heritage Month, which was spearheaded by a private member’s bill from PC MPP Rudy Cuzzetto.
One of her stops was Queen’s Park where she gathered with Ford, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, Associate Mental Health Minister Michael Tibollo and Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli.
Notably, no one from the federal government met with Novák while she was in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office confirmed to Queen’s Park Today yesterday.
While Canada and Hungary are allies, the two countries have taken very different tacts on the war in Ukraine. Just six weeks ago, Orbán called for EU sanctions against Russia to be scrapped — a position that is radically opposed to Canada’s.
(Trudeau slapped more sanctions on Russian energy officials last week.)
“As a member of the European Union and NATO, the meeting focused on economic opportunities between Hungary and Ontario,” Christine Wood, a premier’s office spokesperson, told Queen’s Park Today.
Ford and Novák “discussed the $645-million worth of two-way trade between our province and Hungary, and Ontario’s work to attract new investment, create good paying jobs, and build a stronger economy.”
“As the premier reiterated in the meeting, our government stands with Ukraine in their fight for freedom and peace against Russia’s unprovoked and unjustifiable invasion,” Wood said.
Novák’s current role in the government is largely ceremonial, although she was formerly the minister of families in Orbán’s cabinet.
The other person of note Novák met with while in Ontario was controversial former University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, whom she praised as someone “repelled by today’s woke ideology and the ambition to create a hegemony of opinion.”
Anti-LGBTQ policies and democratic decline
After winning the 2010 election, Orbán and his Fidesz government have presided over a dramatic decline in democratic norms within Hungary.
According to Freedom House, an organization that monitors political and civil rights worldwide, Orbán’s government has “pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions, including the judiciary.”
The group’s report on Hungary describes the anti-migrant and anti-LGBTQ policies the Fidesz government has enacted, as well as laws that “hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations” the administration finds unfavourable.
This summer, those anti-LGBTQ policies spurred a legal challenge from the EU.
Much ink has been spilled on the U.S. right’s cozy relationship with Hungary. The Conservative Political Action Conference — known south of the border as CPAC — was held in Budapest earlier this year and featured a speech by Orbán. He also attended the most recent iteration of the event in Texas this summer.
Opposition leaders suggested this week’s meeting between Ford and Novák was an instance of “birds of a feather” flocking together.
“This premier seems to be becoming more and more right wing,” fumed Tabuns, noting Bill 28 was tabled while Ford met “with people who are pioneering those sorts of anti-democratic approaches.”
“It’s an interesting coincidence that he’s meeting with the president of a regime that’s doing that, while he’s chipping away at our Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” added interim Liberal leader John Fraser.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly‘s office described Novák’s visit as a “private visit,” rather than an official visit. “As is customary for Heads of State, limited Protocol courtesies were in place,” Joly’s spokesperson told Queen’s Park Today. However, “the President did not come to Ottawa and [Global Affairs Canada] officials did not meet with President Novák.”
One member of the federal Liberal government, Kingston-area MP Mark Gerretsen described Ford’s meeting as “nuts” on social media.
Government kept meeting (mostly) under wraps
On Monday, the lone public acknowledgement of the visit from the PCs came from Minister Fedeli tweeting a picture of himself with Novák.
“We had a chance to discuss our shared values,” tweeted Fedeli Monday. “Including giving businesses a competitive edge and driving economic prosperity.”
Queen’s Park Today asked Fedeli Thursday at the legislature for more information on that trade, and whether the government was okay with associating with the Orbán government. He refused to answer and kept walking.
The president’s visit was not mentioned in the legislative chamber during the introduction of visitors on Monday, the government didn’t release any statement, nor did Ford’s office tweet about it.
That stands in stark contrast to other high-profile visits. For instance, the PCs made much more fanfare about Ford’s meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in August.
When it came to Novák, the premier “clearly didn’t want people to know that meeting took place,” charged Schreiner.
For his part, Tibollo retweeted a post about the president giving him a Hungarian Order of Merit at a ceremony over the weekend for his efforts in helping the heritage month bill pass. A photo from the event also shows Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma in attendance.
Only after Queen’s Park Today reached out to Ford’s office did it acknowledge the meeting.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include a response from Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly‘s office.