Kathleen Wynne's cabinet has lost a high-profile member after her combative environment minister resigned on Monday to head an Alberta-based climate think tank, forcing a cabinet shuffle less than a year before the Ontario Premier faces an election.
While Glen Murray said his resignation after eight years in Ontario politics had nothing to do with the Liberal Party's struggle in the polls, Ms. Wynne is in trouble. Despite a booming economy, the Premier's disapproval rating is the highest in Canada and she's been dogged by high energy prices, the unpopular privatization of Hydro One and mounting housing affordability concerns.
Ontario's loss will be the Pembina Institute's gain as Mr. Murray is set to become the head of the Alberta-based environmental organization on Sept. 5. Pembina is a clean-energy think tank that has a reputation not only for green activism but for pragmatism and working with the energy industry in its oil-rich home province. Mr. Murray is expected to set his sights on beefing up the organization's profile as U.S. President Donald Trump has dismissed climate change and caused governments to question their commitment to costly carbon-reduction accords.
"He has served the people of Ontario well. His role as minister of the environment and climate change literally has been critical in the advancement of climate change action across this country, not just in Ontario," Ms. Wynne said of Mr. Murray on Monday morning as she shuffled her cabinet, promoting her housing minister to take over the environment portfolio.
Mr. Murray, the MPP for Toronto-Centre, will be resigning his seat in the legislature effective Sept. 1, leaving Queen's Park after shepherding the province's climate change policy and its adoption of a cap-and-trade carbon-pricing plan. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Murray said that leading Pembina is his "dream job." He once served as chair of the now-defunct National Round Table on the Environment and Economy.
"There's no good time to get into politics and no great time to get out of politics." said Mr. Murray, adding the job opportunity at Pembina gave him a chance to continue working on climate change.
While Ms. Wynne faced a barrage of questions on Monday about the timing of his departure, Mr. Murray said he didn't feel that he was jumping off a sinking ship, adding he would bet his retirement savings that the Premier will be re-elected. He pointed to Ontario current economic success and her government's policies on climate change and social policy. "I don't think there is a premier in Canadian history who has accomplished what she has accomplished," he said.
Mr. Murray's resignation was unexpected, according to his colleagues. While he had mused in the past that he wouldn't run again, he was widely expected to contest the 2018 election. His downtown Toronto seat is considered one of the safest for Liberals.
Ms. Wynne told reporters on Monday that she was surprised by Mr. Murray's resignation. However, according to a source close to the process, applications for the Pembina position closed in March and there were months of discussion before Mr. Murray took the position.
In his new job, Mr. Murray will be expected to increase Pembina's clout, according to David Runnalls, president of the think tank's board of directors. The group often advocates for environmental policies with federal and provincial governments. Mr. Murray said he has consulted Ontario's Integrity Commissioner and will refrain from lobbying the Ontario government during a one-year cooling-off period.
Despite an annual budget of only $5-million, Pembina has often been sought as a partner by governments looking to burnish their green credentials. Outgoing executive director Ed Whittingham stood with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley – along with oil company chief executives and First Nations leaders – when she unveiled her government's climate-change plan in 2015.
The Pembina board wants to see Mr. Murray lead a growth plan that would see the group double its budget over the next few years. The former environment minister told The Globe that he would look to U.S. foundations, among others, to help finance advocacy for strong Canadian environmental policies.
According to Mr. Runnalls, the think tank will "keep up the pressure on governments to make sure they do what they said they were going to do. With Trump, there's going to be massive pressure on the federal governments to back down on the pan-Canadian [climate] plan."
He noted both Ontario and Alberta will have elections in the next two years and their left-of-centre governments – which have supported strong climate policy – face strong opposition conservative parties that oppose the current policies, especially in Alberta.
Mr. Murray said Pembina has an opportunity to play an important role as Canada pursues climate-change policy both at home and on the world stage.
Mr. Murray had been an aggressive proponent of climate action within Ms. Wynne's government, at time clashing with industry, which was wary of the higher carbon prices and the impact they would have on Ontario's industrial competitiveness.
He was also a former mayor of Winnipeg who developed a reputation for activist politics.
Ontario is scheduled to go to the polls in June, 2018, and Mr. Murray's departure will leave his seat vacant until then. Along with Chris Ballard's promotion to Minister of the Environment and Climate Change on Monday, Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP Peter Milczyn took over Mr. Ballard's housing portfolio, while Marie-France Lalonde, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, was also named head of a new Ministry of Francophone Affairs.