Premier Dalton McGuinty has jolted the race to succeed him by ordering potential candidates to quit cabinet if they want to seek the Liberal leadership.
In a move that could strip the government of its top-ranked ministers, McGuinty convened cabinet one day after his surprise resignation — and suspension of the legislature — to set the new rules of engagement.
“It’s too hard to split your job as a minister and run as a candidate. It takes too much energy, so you’ve got to pick a lane,” Health Minister Deb Matthews said, paraphrasing McGuinty’s reasoning after leaving the two-hour cabinet meeting. “Are you prepared to give it your heart and soul?”
Sources say ministers looked around the cabinet table at one another in silence and nodded in agreement when the premier, who has been in power since 2003, read them the riot act.
The edict appeared to give some contenders pause since former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris did not impose a similar stricture when he triggered a leadership race after resigning in 2001.
“My head’s not there yet,” said Matthews, the MPP for London North Centre and long seen as a front-runner to replace McGuinty.
Asked about the decree, Glen Murray, the minister for training, colleges and universities and another hopeful, said: “I always agree with the premier.”
But supporters of Murray, a former Winnipeg mayor who represents Toronto Centre, are still encouraging him to run.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, McGuinty’s deputy premier and the most influential cabinet member, said it’s the right call.
“Ministers need to be focused entirely on their job. It’s in the interest of the integrity of the government,” Duncan told the Star.
“If any number of us who are considering this … it’s going to be fairly intense,” said the veteran MPP for Windsor-Tecumseh.
Duncan, who has long dismissed any interest in replacing McGuinty, is under immense pressure from fellow Liberals, who feel he is the only person with a shot at keeping the party in government after the next election, widely expected next spring.
“I’m not ruling it out,” said Duncan, who is entering a period when he typically knuckles down in heavy preparations for a March budget.
Other top Liberal leadership contenders are Energy Minister Chris Bentley, Education Minister Laurel Broten, Economic Development Minister Children and Youth Services Minister Eric Hoskins, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Charles Sousa, Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne, and party president Yasir Naqvi, the Ottawa Centre MPP.
Wynne, who has significant support from the teachers’ unions that have abandoned the Liberals over McGuinty’s imposed wage freeze, is seen as a leading candidate.
“There are lots of things that are being considered now. We don’t know the timing. We don’t know what the rules are going to be yet. So it’s too soon to commit,” said the Don Valley West MPP.
Some Liberals say gender will matter in the upcoming leadership election.
“The route to staying in power is for us to select a woman as leader,” said one prominent Liberal insider, noting the Grits need to fend off the surging NDP Leader Andrea Horwath on their left flank.
“We need a progressive who can make peace with the unions so we need to concentrate on Andrea and leave (Progressive Conservative Leader Tim) Hudak to win his 35 seats,” said the Grit, noting the Tory leader tests poorly with women voters in focus groups.
The Liberals could also use a channel changer due to the lingering controversy over their decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville — for at least $230 million — to win five Grit seats in the last election.
Bentley, the energy minister who still faces contempt of parliament censure over the delayed release of 56,000 pages of related documents, had been viewed as a first-tier candidate to become premier but could be a lightning rod in any Liberal race.
“What I’m doing right now is concentrating on the important work that I have to do in energy,” said the London West MPP, who did not rule out a run.
McGuinty also told his senior staffers they themselves must resign if they want to work full-time for candidates in the leadership race, expected to culminate in a convention next January.
With the federal Liberals holding their leadership convention next April in Ottawa, the provincial Grits, who held a conference call of party brass Tuesday night, don’t want anything to distract from their event.
To that end, Jan. 25-27 — the weekend between the National Football League’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl — is being considered.
While losing his best and brightest cabinet members to a leadership race might emasculate his administration, McGuinty has three well-regarded former ministers in his backbenches who could be called upon to serve on an interim basis: MPPs Donna Cansfield (Etobicoke Centre), Mike Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence), and Monte Kwinter (York Centre).
There would be an immediate financial impact on any minister who quits his or her post to go back to being a mere MPP. Their pay would drop to $116,550 from $165,851 — an almost $50,000 cut — plus the loss of staff, resources, and access to a car and driver.
Tory leader Hudak called McGuinty’s decision “bizarre” coming as it does after the premierprorogued parliament, grinding the legislative business to a halt.
“I suspect that what is happening now is complete paralysis of government and that’s a disservice to the people of Ontario,” he said.
“I’m worried this is his latest decision that’s going to shut down government for months on end at a crucial tipping point for our province.”
Horwath, meanwhile, repeated her concerns over prorogation, which she said isn’t necessary for the Liberals to turn down the temperature in the government’s contentious fight with public service unions.
“We don’t need to prorogue the house to have that conversation,” she said, calling the dissolution of the house “forced vacation.”
“Nine bills — that the government insisted as recently as yesterday were being needlessly delayed — are now all of a sudden thrown into limbo,” Horwath noted.
Among the halted matters is the committee that would have looked into the gas plant debacle, which she said “is now being swept under the carpet.”
Against this backdrop, McGuinty kept out of the public eye on Tuesday.
While he had artfully dodged questions Monday night about whether he would jump into the federal Liberal leadership race, confidants of the 57-year-old premier said that’s unlikely.
“There are people around him who want him to run,” said one Liberal insider. “But he and (wife) Terri don’t have the appetite.”
Still, by letting his name remain in play, McGuinty has shrewdly ensured — at least for now — that he is not seen as a lame duck, say other associates.