Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne introduces her new cabinet today with a series of signals that she is serious about dealing with the province’s ballooning debt burden. Some key developments:
The toughest job in cabinet
By far the largest change is in Finance. Much of Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s job is being hived off to Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who is also named as the newly-empowered Treasury Board president.
On top of Treasury Board’s traditional duty – approving government expenses day-to-day and pressing ministries to find savings – Ms. Matthews will also be in charge of tough files, such as labour negotiations and Crown corporations. Her central job? Get the budget balanced by 2017-18.
The fact that Ms. Wynne put her second-in-command and closest ally in the role sends a signal across government that she means business. When Ms. Matthews asks a ministry to dial back a spending request, they will know she has the Premier backing her up.
The Liberals know spending is their Achilles heel – they are much better at describing new programs they want to create than explaining how they will pay for existing ones. Making the latter Ms. Matthews’ sole job fills in the gap for them.
Mr. Sousa, meanwhile, will remain in charge of budgeting and longer-term fiscal planning.
The largest promotion
Eric Hoskins, the mild-mannered doctor and former leadership contender, moves from economic development to health.
Best known for his humanitarian work in war zones, Mr. Hoskins had a rather low profile at economic development. He did, however, lead the province’s fight for concessions in trade deals with Europe and South Korea.
A government source suggested the Premier’s office believes Mr. Hoskins will do better in a portfolio closer to his interests and knowledge base.
He takes over at a crucial time: Ms. Matthews had begun to decrease the rate of the health budget’s growth – largely by moving chronic patients from hospitals to long-term care facilities – and Mr. Hoskins will be expected to continue that work.
He will also have to make tough decisions on curbing spending and oversee complicated hospital mergers.
Bigging up Brad
With his high-voltage smile and regular guy image, Brad Duguid is the consummate retail politician and one of the government’s strongest communicators.
Now, Ms. Wynne is making him Ontario’s salesman-in-chief as Economic Development Minister, where his central task will be to convince companies to invest in the province.
She is also expanding the role to include Infrastructure, giving him one of government’s heftiest portfolios.
He will oversee a high-stakes part of government that is tasked with creating jobs, both through a new business development fund contained in the budget and infrastructure spending, which Ms. Wynne is hoping will give the province an economic boost.
Although Mr. Duguid always seemed an odd fit in his old job at Training, Colleges and Universities – he’s the furthest possible thing from a nerdy intellectual – he did well in the portfolio, moving forward a significant restructuring of post-secondary fees and helping coordinate the provinces to successfully negotiate changes to Ottawa’s Canada Jobs Grant.
His ability to push important files forward, and his ease in front of the cameras has clearly won Ms. Wynne’s confidence.
In one of the most rapid recent rises in Ontario politics, Vaughan’s Steven Del Duca – a relative rookie with less than two years in the legislature – has vaulted off the backbench and into the high-profile transportation portfolio.
Mr. Del Duca has proven himself a pitbull in the legislature, where he serves as one of the Liberals’ three attack dogs. Now, he will have to bring the same toughness to smashing gridlock.
He will be tasked with spending the $29-billion Ms. Wynne has pledged for public transit, highways and bridges. It is one of the government’s priority files and, as evidenced by the non-stop battle at Toronto city council on subways versus LRTs, can be one of the most fractious.
Mr. Del Duca’s job will be to juggle a long list of projects, ensuring all are moving forward, while settling disputes at municipalities and between local politicians and the province.
Metrolinx and Queen’s Park have historically been timid in the face of local bickering – a skittishness that has delayed transit-building in Toronto for the past four years. With a majority government backing him, Mr. Del Duca’s greatest challenge will be to show he can be authoritative in deciding which projects will be built and how, and then get them moving forward.
He may face his first major hurdle later this year. Toronto’s mayoral race is divided on transit, with some candidates pushing for a return to an LRT project in Scarborough and others looking to tear up existing plans for a new downtown subway line. No matter who wins, Mr. Del Duca is likely to face more bickering at council.
Glen Murray has been dropped from his once-powerful perch at transportation and infrastructure, shuffled to the low-profile environment ministry.
There are two probable reasons for the change. First, Mr. Murray came into transportation wanting to re-examine the Big Move – a massive transit plan years in the making. That earned the ire of a Premier’s office already wary of how changing plans have stalled transit building in the province.
Then, Mr. Murray turned a public relations win into a disaster last summer. On the day the province announced it would build a subway extension into Scarborough, he got into a public war of words with Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz that had to be resolved on a TV talk-show.
While Mr. Murray’s big public persona is badly needed in an often dry government, it seemed to become a liability in an already-contentious portfolio.
The stalwarts staying
A large chunk of cabinet remains in their current jobs, including Education Minister Liz Sandals – who will help Ms. Matthews with tough negotiations with the province's teachers – and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, whose dour, managerial style has earned him respect in the industry and helped minimize drama in one of the government's most contentious files.
Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal will stay in place, but will gain the agriculture portfolio from Ms. Wynne, who personally took it on in an effort to mend fences with rural residents upset at the Liberals' construction of wind turbines in the countryside.
Attorney-General Madeleine Meilleur and Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi will also remain in place. Mr. Naqvi will take on the role of government house leader, effectively elevating him to the upper ranks of cabinet.