When the Ontario Liberals' caucus started paying close attention to Supercorp this week, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was on a business trip to Asia.
Seeing as how Mr. Duncan is probably the only member of the Liberal benches prepared to make a case for the idea of pooling together several of the province's public assets and selling off a chunk of them, it was the latest sign of a communications mess that may have already doomed the scheme.
Although more media outlets have suddenly started paying attention to it, very little has changed on the file in the several weeks since Mr. Duncan and Premier Dalton McGuinty had a meeting about it. But that, as much as anything, is the problem for Supercorp's limited number of advocates.
For one thing, the Liberals are running out of time to implement so complex a concept before the next provincial election. Insiders concede they'd need to make a firm decision this summer, but say it hasn't even been fully debated by Dalton McGuinty's kitchen cabinet (made up of advisers such as campaign manager Don Guy, former principal secretary Gerald Butts and brother Brendan McGuinty) - a prerequisite to going before the real cabinet.
The bigger problem is that the Liberals have lost control of the issue before they've even decided if they want to move forward with it.
Supercorp would have been a tough sell at the best of times. It invites accusations of mortgaging the future with a fire sale. And unlike the harmonized sales tax, to this point the most controversial policy of Mr. McGuinty's second term, it has few natural advocates.
Bay Street doesn't like it; neither, for obvious reasons, do public-sector unions. Its biggest proponent seems to be David Livingston, the powerful former bank executive who - by nature of now running the government agency Infrastructure Ontario - probably wouldn't even be able to speak up.
There are Liberals who believe they could conceivably overcome those odds, by focusing less on the sale itself than what it would pay for - which is to say, a large chunk of whatever investments (particularly in education) they promise in next year's campaign platform. There's also some belief that the idea of a sector-spanning mega-company, combining public and private ownership and expertise, could be made to fit into the government's "Open Ontario" economic development message.
But essential to making those kinds of cases is getting out of the gate first in framing the issue. And the Liberals have done quite the opposite.
The possibility of asset sales was reported in The Globe and Mail last fall; the specific prospect of Supercorp in December. Since that time, critics - including but not limited to the provincial opposition parties - have lined up to paint the impression of a desperate government making an ill-considered cash-grab. And the Liberals have done almost nothing to counter that, let alone to get ahead of it.
For some reason, the issue garnered limited attention until this week. Now it's blown up, in part because senior members of the government are leaking information to try to kill it. But it remains a very one-sided debate.
It's no wonder that the Liberals' own MPPs are highly skeptical. With the HST taking effect next week, they don't want to be on the defensive on another front. And the defensive is where their party has already wound up.
Mr. Duncan may yet get to make the case to his colleagues. But with each passing day, that will become a tougher task.Report Typo/Error