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Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in his Queen's Park office, March 24, 2011. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in his Queen's Park office, March 24, 2011. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Globe and Mail)

The Tell

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan: 'I'm neither patient nor even-tempered' Add to ...

He's wearing his ID badge in his own office, as though he might have to explain his presence at any moment. He calls politics his "vocation." He speaks in reverential tones about Dalton McGuinty, whom he refers to privately as "the boss."

Dwight Duncan came to Queen's Park a quarter-century ago, having practically grown up in the Liberal Party, as a political staffer. And he could easily be mistaken for one today, albeit a little more senior than he started.

In fact, Mr. Duncan is a whole lot more senior than he started - and more senior than nearly anyone else at Ontario's Legislature. On Tuesday, he will bring down his fifth budget as the province's Finance Minister, presenting a plan to eliminate a massive deficit.

In an election year, with the government trailing in the polls, he will play a key role in trying to reverse its fortunes. And if his Liberals are defeated in October, he will be an obvious candidate to replace Mr. McGuinty.

Mr. Duncan, however, will hear of no such thing. Once upon a time, he thought he would be a better leader than Mr. McGuinty. Now, by his own account, their relationship has taught him he is not leadership material at all. "I've watched him up close," he says. "And one of the things I've determined is that it's not a job I would enjoy doing. It requires a certain set of skills that, frankly, I think I lack.

"You need patience; you need to be fairly even-tempered. I'm neither patient nor even-tempered. Donald Macdonald called it the royal jelly. I don't feel that."

'Teddy bear' with a temper

It's startling to hear such unsparing self-analysis. But he wouldn't be playing such a pivotal role in his province's future if he were unaware of his limitations and unwilling to set ambition aside.

Despite the bad temper to which he alludes - he is known for unpleasant outbursts, followed by quick apologies - people who have worked for him tend to view him fondly. (The term "teddy bear" comes up more than once.) And they have similar observations about what makes him tick.

The first thing to know about Mr. Duncan, who is divorced, with a son now in his 20s, is that he loves politics; it's what he does for work and what he does for pleasure. It's who he is.

The second is how much the toil and turmoil of Windsor, his blue-collar hometown, inform his perspective. "He is a classic meat-and-potatoes guy," one former Queen's Park staffer says. "He's not adventurous."

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to his longevity on Mr. McGuinty's front bench, is the intense loyalty only a political lifer could truly understand.

Mr. McGuinty has unburdened himself of alpha males with obvious designs on his job. Gerard Kennedy, George Smitherman and Michael Bryant are all long gone. So Mr. Duncan stands as the only high-profile minister to have served the Premier through nearly eight years in power.

He is also the minister Mr. McGuinty trusts most. "Dwight has been in the Premier's confidence to the extent that any ministers are in the Premier's confidence," a senior Liberal says.

That it's Mr. McGuinty on whom Mr. Duncan has bestowed his loyalty, and to some extent vice versa, is a remarkable turn of events, considering what happened between them 15 years ago - when they discovered, in dramatic fashion, which one of them really had the royal jelly.

Both were opposition MPPs and among the seven candidates for the party leadership. And while Mr. McGuinty emerged with the crown, Mr. Duncan emerged with much humiliation.

He allowed a television crew to follow him during the convention, presumably expecting to document his path to victory. Instead, it documented him being knocked out early, then wandering around disconsolately searching for his wife, while being accosted by erstwhile supporters angry that he had thrown his support to Mr. Kennedy. Worst of all, the cameras captured his expletive-capped reaction to Mr. McGuinty's victory.

His future in the party should have been doomed and, although he denies it, some supporters say he considered a career change.

"People said that I was finished," Mr. Duncan says. "What they missed that week was that I was in the House the next day. And the day after that, and the day after that."

Mr. McGuinty evidently did not miss that. Nor did it likely escape his notice that Mr. Duncan was among the first MPPs to call him, following the party's disastrous 1999 election campaign, to promise his continued support. And when the Liberals formed the government in 2003, Mr. Duncan was made energy minister.

Perhaps Mr. McGuinty still wasn't quite Mr. Duncan's biggest fan, because the energy sector was a mess at the time, and the posting could easily have proved a death trap. Instead, Mr. Duncan's troubleshooting skills kept controversies to a minimum, and he forged strong relations with an industry that tends to chew ministers up and spit them out.

When then-finance minister Greg Sorbara was forced to step aside temporarily during the Liberals' first term because of a potential conflict of interest, Mr. Duncan was entrusted to fill the role. And when Mr. Sorbara left the cabinet for good after the Liberals' re-election in 2007, the job was Mr. Duncan's in earnest.

His longevity in that position, and emergence as Mr. McGuinty's second-in-command, is due to several factors. He is one of the government's few strong communicators, able to break from the script without getting into too much trouble. He grasps complex files better than many ministers. He is, even adversaries will concede, a professional.

Still, his willingness to set aside his own interests can't be discounted. Whatever ego compelled him, or any candidate, to seek the leadership, the result seemed to drive much of it out of him.

Like most cabinet members, he has developed a degree of "ministeritis" - having an entire staff at his beck and call. But he also displays the respect for authority, the eagerness to please, that would have been expected of him when he was working summers for Herb Gray, the Windsor Liberal icon.

In some cases, that can arguably work to his detriment, getting in the way of his policy objectives. He describes himself as "fiscally conservative," an assess-

ment other Liberals agree with. But the government has not leaned discernibly rightward under his fiscal guidance, even if the coming budget is expected to involve some trimming.

There's also how he presents himself. After Mr. Smitherman's departure, he is the only capable attack dog on the government's front bench. So in an election year, he is increasingly being called upon to launch highly partisan broadsides against the opposition that seem at odds with the gravitas typically expected of finance ministers.

Mr. Duncan rejects that charge. "I think that partisan stuff's important - you use language to highlight differences. I don't think I'm any more partisan than Jim Flaherty, or Paul Martin when he was finance minister."

By all accounts, he also rather enjoys the partisan stuff - the cut and thrust of politics, the banter. He is one of the few ministers who actually likes being in the legislature, so doing the heavy lifting for Mr. McGuinty is not much of a chore.

What life after politics?

But as the Premier's time winds down - even if he wins this year's election, he is expected to step aside before his third term is over - Mr. Duncan has to know that he is reaching the end of the line at Queen's Park as well.

The obvious thing would be to go into the private sector. Having been Finance Minister and moving in Bay Street circles this long, he could easily get himself on a few boards and prepare for a comfortable retirement.

It's nearly impossible, though, for anyone who knows him to imagine him outside politics. A likelier outcome, some friends say, is a move to federal politics. With a seat in Ottawa, he would get a pension - something Ontario MPPs don't receive - without having to abandon his vocation.

Others still believe he would be susceptible to a draft movement if a replacement for Mr. McGuinty is urgently needed. But he insists that his future is now irrevocably tied to that of his one-time rival.

"When he leaves," Mr. Duncan says, "I'll probably be about three weeks after him out the door."

It's what any good staffer would say.

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