In his abortive final term as Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty played against perceived type by moving rightward to try to contend with his province’s perilous fiscal situation.
With his sudden departure, the provincial Liberals now have to decide whether to continue with that shift, or try to reclaim long-time supporters on the centre-left. And nothing will influence that direction more than whom they choose as Mr. McGuinty’s successor.
What remains unclear is whether both options will be well-represented in the leadership contest.
From the relative left, there should be at least one strong candidate – and possibly several.
That list starts with Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Aboriginal Affairs. Media-savvy, formidable in cabinet and a strong campaigner, she plays well with party activists. And if anyone has a chance to recover some of the Liberals’ unions support, Ms. Wynne – seen as sympathetic during her time as education minister – would probably be her.
Health Minister Deb Matthews, approvingly described by admirers as a “real Liberal,” could also enter the fray. Ms. Matthews’s star fell a little because of the scandal at the province’s air-ambulance service. But before that she was seen as a highly competent minister, and there’s a lot of goodwill toward her dating back to her time as party president.
Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, has made little secret of his ambitions. The former Winnipeg mayor, a prototypical downtown Liberal, rubs enough people the wrong way that it’s hard to see him actually winning a leadership contest. But he could still be a strong voice in it.
The question is who, if anyone, emerges as the standard-bearer for the centre-right.
As the Liberals have tried to adopt an austerity agenda, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has been the truest of believers. Some of his colleagues have credited him with making a strong case to caucus for restraint measures; others have lamented that Finance has seemed to be running government, or trying to. In any event, he has often had the ear of Mr. McGuinty, and would represent the closest thing to continuity – a case he would be able to make with gusto, as the most assured public performer on the Liberal benches.
But Mr. Duncan, scarred by a disastrous past leadership run and aware of the dismal history of finance ministers taking over governments’ top job, has long denied an interest in replacing Mr. McGuinty. While he seems to be reconsidering under pressure from business Liberals, it’s far from a sure thing he’ll take the plunge.
While there are a few other potential centre-right candidates – Citizenship and Immigration Minister Charles Sousa, Education Minister Laurel Broten, even beleaguered Energy Minister Chris Bentley – none of them would enter the race as frontrunners.
There’s always a chance that rather than an ideological battle between the old guard, a next-generation candidate could come up the middle. Yasir Naqvi, a well-regarded young MPP who doubles as party president, has a lot of leadership buzz around him. But a victory could actually cut short his promising career if he wound up holding the bag for his party in a spring election.
That’s a consideration, really, that’s weighing on everyone considering a run. History suggests that rather than quickly turning around governing parties perceived to have reached the end of the line, new leaders often wind up cannon fodder. The worry of bringing an unseemly end to an otherwise distinguished career, or cutting short a promising one, could be enough to deny the Liberals the range of options they need.