The political fall guy in the Ontario legislature for the gas-plants scandal, Energy Minister Chris Bentley won’t seek the Ontario Liberal leadership and will resign his seat in the next election.
Bentley told QMI Agency Thursday night he won’t enter the race to replace departing Premier Dalton McGuinty. When the now-suspended legislature resumes with a new Liberal leader and an election is called, the London lawyer will also give up the London West seat he’s held since the McGuinty-led Liberals swept to power in 2003.
The 56-year-old will formally announce both moves Friday.
“It has been a remarkable nine years,” Bentley said. “It’s been a great chapter, a very interesting chapter in my life. It is time to write the next chapter.”
Taking himself out of the Liberal leadership race leaves Southwestern Ontario with only two big-name Liberals — both women — potentially left: Health Minister Deb Matthews of London, and former economic development minister Sandra Pupatello, who gave up her Windsor seat in the last election to work in the private sector.
A fourth Grit heavyweight, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan of Windsor, took himself out of the running this week.
Pupatello says she’s considering a run.
Bentley wouldn’t say if he will support Matthews if she makes a run, only that “Deb and I have worked very well together.”
Reached Thursday night, Matthews said she has “nothing but the deepest respect and admiration” for Bentley.
“I think he’s made an outstanding contribution. He’s exactly the kind of person that we need more of in politics,” she said.
She gave away nothing new about her own leadership aspirations, saying she’s still considering it.
“It’s now time for me to really have that conversation with my soul to really make the decision whether this is something I’m prepared to enter,” she said.
News of his departure surprised some Liberals who thought Bentley might take a stab at his boss’ job.
“He’s served the province well in his time,” said Doug Ferguson, a former national Liberal president who ran federally for the party in Bentley’s riding.
“It’s certainly going to change the political landscape in the London area and I wish him well as he concludes his career.”
Bentley had come under a harsh spotlight at Queen’s Park in recent months, seen by many as the fall guy for pre-election moves the Liberals quietly made to kill two Toronto-area gas plants at a cost to taxpayers of at least $230 million before last fall’s election left the Grits one seat shy of a majority government.
Bentley took over the energy portfolio afterward, stepping into a political firestorm as the minister in charge of making peace with rural regions riled over the explosive growth of often-unwanted wind farms and the government’s seizure of local control over where they can be built.
Opposition critics contend the two Toronto-area gas plants, which faced fierce local opposition in Mississauga and Oakville, were killed to safeguard Liberal re-election chances in those ridings last fall.
A minister since he first went to Queen’s Park, Bentley had served as attorney general, labour minister, and colleges and universities minister.
“I think he’ll go down in history as one of our most effective attorney generals,” Ferguson said.
In recent weeks, Bentley felt the heat of the gas-plants scandal under the threat of a rare contempt citation in the legislature, pushed by opposition parties demanding government documents on the two deals.
In the end, the government first released more than 30,000 pages of records, then another 20,000, but questions remained about who knew what and when, and the Opposition Tories vowed to keep the pressure on when the legislature — prorogued until after the Liberals choose a new leader in late January — returns.
The fallout from the controversy was building when McGuinty shocked even his own party nearly two weeks ago, calling an emergency caucus meeting to announce he’d resign as premier and prorogue the legislature until the Grits choose a new leader.
News of Bentley’s departure came as a surprise to some in the Liberal party who thought he might make a run for the leadership.