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The Globe and Mail

The case for a kinder, gentler Finance Minister in Ontario

It was a role that Dwight Duncan took to with gusto. Haranguing his colleagues with doomsday scenarios about the perils of mounting debt, cajoling them to accept belt-tightening measures and shooting down calls for spending on their priorities or pet projects, the former finance minister was only too happy to play the bad cop within the Ontario Liberal caucus.

To left-of-centre Liberals, he was a bully who stifled his colleagues' ideas. To fiscal conservatives, he was the only thing standing between a governing party with big-spending inclinations and a flirtation with financial disaster. Either way, he and his department seemed at times almost to be running the government – empowered by a premier, Dalton McGuinty, who had bought what Mr. Duncan was selling and was known to have his back.

Now, with Mr. Duncan settling into a new job on Bay Street, and Charles Sousa in his place, Ontarians are about to find out just how essential all that force of personality was to the austerity push their government is still supposed to be in the midst of.

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In many ways, Finance looks just as powerful as it was a few months ago. Peter Wallace, head of the Ontario Public Service, spent much of his career in Finance, served as the department's deputy minister and maintains strong ties. Many of Mr. Duncan's senior political staff are still around.

Most importantly, despite being seen as significantly left of Mr. McGuinty, new Premier Kathleen Wynne has maintained the goal of eliminating the province's deficit by 2017-18, placing Finance front and centre in most decisions.

But behind the scenes, according to sources who spend time there, the mood is different. In caucus meetings, Liberal MPPs are growing bolder about calling for the purse strings to be loosened. When they point out that the deficit keeps going down faster than projected, Mr. Sousa is less inclined than his predecessor to slap them down with warnings that to achieve the targeted 2017-18 return to balance, the hard part is still to come.

That's partly a function of who he is. Whereas Mr. Duncan is a big personality with no qualms about getting into arguments with political opponents and allies alike, Mr. Sousa is almost invariably described as "affable." With little discernible temper, the former banker hasn't shown much inclination to push back hard during Question Period, let alone when talking to fellow Liberals.

Then there is his mandate. It did not escape the notice of Mr. Sousa's colleagues that, unlike both Mr. Duncan and Greg Sorbara before him, he was not named chair of cabinet's powerful Treasury Board committee, which plays a pivotal role in judging funding requests.

That job went to Government Services Minister Harinder Takhar, which might be some solace to fiscal conservatives, since he ran the most hawkish campaign of any of the leadership candidates, including Mr. Sousa. But fairly or not, being bypassed added to Mr. Sousa's challenges in proving that he got Finance based on merit, rather than because he played queenmaker at the Liberal convention. And certainly, it proved he is on a shorter leash than Mr. Duncan was, although that's not saying much.

It's worth remembering that Mr. Duncan's appointment to Finance, back in 2007, was met with some skepticism as well. Despite having performed competently in the notoriously brutal Energy post during Mr. McGuinty's first term, some worried he was too much of a raging partisan and lacked the requisite gravitas to mind the province's books. That he was able to win grudging respect suggests that, with time, Mr. Sousa could as well.

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Some Liberals believe that Mr. Sousa's kinder and gentler approach could ultimately prove more productive than Mr. Duncan's in selling colleagues on restraint measures. The latter's fire-and-brimstone was beginning to fall on deaf ears, by their account, in part because of suspicions that he was trying too hard to impress the business world. So a finance minister seen to be more pragmatic, serving a premier with spending impulses of her own, could actually get more buy-in for tough spending decisions.

For now, though, the absence of one very loud voice is allowing others to speak up, testing just where this new regime is at. For the first time in a while, Liberals are finding it's possible to question the orthodoxy of austerity without the bad cop coming down on you.

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