Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is planning a cabinet shakeup that could see younger ministers and gender parity as she and her inner circle look to emulate the enthusiasm and youthfulness of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet, according to a number of veteran Liberal sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Nearing the mid-point of her four-year mandate, the Liberal insiders say, the Premier believes some ministers are not pulling their weight – leaving her to push their files forward herself – and have failed to properly communicate government policy, reflected in her party's low numbers in public-opinion polls.
Ms. Wynne is also concerned that her cabinet is looking too "old, tired, grey," in the words of one source.
There have been conversations about a cabinet with an equal number of men and women. There are currently eight women, including Ms. Wynne, and 18 men in her cabinet.
The cabinet shuffle will happen after the legislature rises June 9, giving new ministers the summer to find their feet. It comes as the Liberals struggle in the polls, squeezed between the two opposition parties.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has made a play for moderate voters by embracing carbon pricing to fight climate change, while NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is seeking to peel away left-leaning Liberals unhappy with Ms. Wynne's privatization of Hydro One. And a series of ethical imbroglios, including revelations by The Globe and Mail of a system of secret cash-for-access fundraisers, have tarnished the Liberal brand.
The Premier spent the first half of her mandate advancing rapidly on a slew of big-ticket policies: money for new transit projects, a cap-and-trade system to battle carbon emissions, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan to supplement CPP for people without a workplace pension and the Hydro One sell-off. Now she must make sure all of these policies are rolled out smoothly and sold to the electorate in the run-up to the 2018 provincial election.
The Liberals are moving more emphatically into re-election phase. Among other things, Ms. Wynne's pollster and strategic guru, David Herle, has become more involved in preparations, and the party itself is undergoing a restructuring that saw the departure of executive director Earl Provost.
One veteran Liberal said there is a view among the Premier and her advisers that some of the longer-serving members of cabinet are not particularly effective communicators.
"She is blaming her cabinet for … in part, the standing in the polls and the perception of the lack of traction," the Liberal said. Shuffling her cabinet now is an attempt to showcase new ministers to change the "image of the government from a bit tired to fresher."
One senior government official, who spoke on background, said no decisions have been made and the shuffle simply reflects a mid-mandate shift toward implementation. The scope of the shakeup, the official said, has not been decided; nor does it reflect the Premier's disappointment with the performance of her bench. On the question of diversity in cabinet, the official said the fact the Premier and her deputy are women should be taken into account.
Questions hang over the heads of several top ministers, including Education Minister Liz Sandals, Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli and Environment Minister Glen Murray. All three have reputations for knowing their files inside out, but they have also brought repeated communications headaches for the government.
Last fall, Ms. Sandals dismissed the need for accountability from teachers' unions on how they spent millions of taxpayer dollars meant to cover their bargaining costs. "We know what 100 pizzas cost," she said.
Mr. Chiarelli has taken flak for trying to minimize the $1.1-billion cost of cancelling two gas-fired power plants by comparing the monthly charge for ratepayers to a cup of coffee. He was also accused last month of saying Ms. Horwath "pees all over the map" on energy policy (although he maintains he did not say that).
And Mr. Murray caused a firestorm last month for a speech in which he attacked the province's auto industry for not doing enough to fight climate change and mused about shutting down nuclear power plants.
Mr. Chiarelli and Mr. Murray have also been involved in a cabinet table battle over the government's climate plans. While Mr. Chiarelli is seen as lacking enthusiasm for the climate fight, Mr. Murray is viewed as volatile for failing to get his colleagues in government to support some of his more ambitious plans, such as getting some Ontarians to switch from natural gas to electric heat.
Both will be hard to replace, however. Mr. Chiarelli is widely regarded within the province's energy sector as a competent minister whose technocratic style has led to stability in one of the government's most difficult files. And tossing Mr. Murray out shortly after he reveals his Climate Change Action Plan could be seen as a lack of confidence in a signature piece of government policy.
In the case of other ministers, insiders say, the problem isn't simply communication but a lack of initiative that leaves the Premier's office handling their files for them.
Ms. Wynne "has not been happy with the quality of her cabinet," one veteran Liberal said. "She has felt she has had to carry the load, for the most part, of the cabinet. That shouldn't be taken as an aspersion on everyone in the cabinet. But, for the majority, she is not happy with the quality of the cabinet."
Added another insider: "Tough decisions have to be made, unfortunately."
Some prominent ministers, however, are expected to retain their portfolios. These include Finance Minister Charles Sousa, one of the government's few connections to Bay Street who has managed to keep a lid on spending while still faithfully implementing Ms. Wynne's agenda – without making any serious mistakes.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins, who has carried water for Ms. Wynne in the province's fee standoff with the province's doctors, is also expected to keep his job.
Meanwhile, several rookie MPPs elected in 2014 are seen as ready for cabinet. These include Eleanor McMahon of Burlington, an experienced political staffer who once worked for former prime minister Jean Chrétien; Indira Naidoo-Harris, who took the battleground riding of Halton away from the Tories in the last election; and Etobicoke Centre MPP Yvan Baker, the telegenic parliamentary assistant to Deputy Premier and Treasury Board President Deb Matthews.
The shuffle could also see the long-awaited elevation of Glenn Thibeault, the former federal NDP MP whose defection to the Liberals last year sparked accusations of bribery.
Two Liberal operatives were accused of offering government jobs to Mr. Thibeault's rival for the Liberal nomination so Mr. Thibeault could take the nomination unopposed. One of the operatives was charged criminally, but the Crown stayed the charges last month. Mr. Thibeault was not accused of any personal wrongdoing.