A rift in the Progressive Conservative caucus could effectively give Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals the majority government they missed by one seat in this fall’s Ontario election.
But capping off a bizarre turn of events that has set Queen’s Park buzzing, the Liberals insist they’ll turn down the gift their opponents are handing them.
On Tuesday afternoon, PC Leader Tim Hudak grimly announced that veteran MPP Frank Klees – a former cabinet minister who was runner-up in his party’s 2009 leadership contest – had rejected a prominent position in the Tories’ shadow cabinet. Instead, Mr. Klees plans to run for Speaker of the Legislature despite Mr. Hudak’s explicit request that no members of his caucus do so.
If elected to that job, Mr. Klees would shift the balance of power in the provincial Legislature by bringing the number of opposition MPPs down to 53 – the same as the number of Liberals. Given the tradition of the Speaker voting with the government on matters of confidence, that would make it almost impossible for Mr. Hudak’s Tories and Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats to bring down the Liberals and force an election.
Within moments of the revelations about Mr. Klees’ candidacy, however, officials from the Premier’s Office insisted they will not ask any of the four members of their own caucus currently campaigning for the Speaker’s job – Donna Cansfield, Kevin Flynn, Dave Levac and David Zimmer – to stand down.
With even one of those MPPs’ names on the secret ballot, Mr. Klees’ path to the chair could well be blocked. Candidates for Speaker can vote for themselves, so if every member of the opposition other than Mr. Klees voted for a Liberal, that person would have the 54 votes needed to win.
“There’s still going to be a Liberal Speaker,” a senior government official predicted on Tuesday afternoon.
The Liberals seem to believe that having the same number of seats as their opponents would be no less volatile a situation than being one seat short. The departure of any one Liberal MPP could easily lead to the government being brought down, potentially more quickly than if the opposition parties had to turn on a minority government that they had previously allowed to govern.
Officials also stressed that Mr. McGuinty can’t prevent his backbenchers from seeking a job that involves more power, more pay and more prestige – and that trying to do so would risk sowing dissent in his caucus.
In an interview, Ms. Cansfield confirmed that she would still run for Speaker even if the Premier asked her not to do so. “There is no integrity in backing down,” the Etobicoke MPP said. “When I say I’m going to do something, I follow through.”
For the PCs, it’s evidently too late to avoid a degree of internal strife. And matters will surely grow more uncomfortable if Mr. Klees loses the Speaker’s job and has to return to his party’s caucus.
Other PC MPPs’ anger will mostly be directed at Mr. Klees, rather than Mr. Hudak. There have long been complaints that he is not a team player, and many will take his rejection of a role within caucus – including an offer to do outreach work with new Canadians, along the lines of what Jason Kenney has done federally – as confirmation of that.
But Mr. Klees has a big following among the Tories’ social conservative wing, which makes up a significant portion of the party’s general membership and propelled him to a surprisingly strong showing in the leadership race.
While it’s doubtful he’d be able to defeat Mr. Hudak in the leadership review scheduled for early 2012, he could create major headaches for him leading up to it.
On Tuesday, Mr. Klees’ decision left the usually even-keel PC Leader looking uncharacteristically shaken. Whereas NDP Leader Andrea Horwath unveiled her shadow cabinet that morning at a cheery event in the Legislature’s press theatre, Mr. Hudak dumped his list on reporters at an abruptly convened scrum outside his office.
“Frank is Frank,” Mr. Hudak said quietly, describing himself as “surprised and disappointed” by what had transpired.
It was not the sort of storyline the Tories wanted as they try to bounce back from their disappointing election result. If there’s any consolation for them, it’s that – at least for now – the Liberals don’t appear inclined to press their advantage.