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Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty looks on during a news conference after a joint cabinet meeting at the National Assembly in Quebec City, June 16, 2010. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger (CANADA - Tags: HEADSHOT POLITICS) (MATHIEU BELANGER/MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS)
Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty looks on during a news conference after a joint cabinet meeting at the National Assembly in Quebec City, June 16, 2010. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger (CANADA - Tags: HEADSHOT POLITICS) (MATHIEU BELANGER/MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS)

Eco-fees fiasco should be a warning for the Liberals Add to ...

Tim Hudak is not known for offering measured takes on the performance of Dalton McGuinty's government. But with the stench of Environment Minister John Gerretsen's press conference still hanging in the air, there were nuggets of truth in what the Opposition Leader had to say.

In the circumstances, "out of touch, out of gas and asleep at the switch" sounded about right. Mr. Hudak's detection of "the signs of a government that has gone off the rails" didn't seem too far off, either.

Mr. Gerretsen's performance on Tuesday, and the events that preceded it, epitomized the second-term malaise into which the Liberals have fallen.

A government firing on all cylinders would have identified the potential fallout from "eco fees" - the waste-disposal charges passed down from manufacturers to retailers to consumers - well before they started being collected on some 9,000 new items on July 1. At the least, it would have acted swiftly once it became clear that there were major problems with the way Stewardship Ontario - a government-regulated agency that requires approval for its decisions - had communicated and administered the fees, surprising shoppers and overcharging some.

Instead, the eco-fees controversy was allowed to fester for two weeks after the story broke. And when Mr. Gerretsen finally emerged to announce that the fees had been at scrapped (at least for now), he still didn't seem to have a firm grasp on the issue.

For reporters, extracting key details - including that the province will pay about $5-million out of government revenues to keep the program operational over the next three months while it settles on a new funding model - was like pulling teeth. Several questions were met with blank stares, followed by a return to talking points about the merits of environmentalism. And despite the press conference rambling on for a full half hour, the government felt the need to send out a subsequent note to "clarify a few points," which is never a good sign.

It's hard to imagine a saga playing out like this in the Liberals' first term, or earlier in their second. But as the 2011 election draws closer, their energy and their instincts seem to be failing them.

This summer has been particularly instructive. It's not just that unforeseen controversies such as eco fees are slipping through the cracks. It's also that there's very little to distract from them, because the government has made scarcely any effort to drive the agenda with policies it actually wants to talk about.

It seems unfair to begrudge the Premier, his ministers or their staff their vacations, given the stresses of their jobs. But they seem to have forgotten, at the end of a busy legislative sitting, that running a government is a 12-month-a-year undertaking - particularly as a campaign draws closer, and every story carries extra political weight.

The contrast with the Conservatives is hard to miss. They're taking the odd holiday, too, but their pace hasn't noticeably slowed. And as the Liberals vacate the news cycle, the Opposition is driving it. The effect is exactly the appearance Mr. Hudak has been aiming for since he won his party's leadership last year - the Tories looking young and hungry, the Liberals coming off old and tired.

Of course, it's easier to have energy when you haven't borne the weight of governance for nearly seven years. And the irony is that Mr. Hudak knows exactly how to exploit what some Tories refer to as "second-term-itis." Having sat as a minister during the depressing final stages of the Mike Harris/Ernie Eves era, he's been there.

The Liberals don't look anywhere near as hopeless as the Tories did back then; they still have core priorities, and Mr. McGuinty is a much stronger leader than Mr. Eves was. But they'd be wise to recognize "eco fees" as a wakeup call, lest they continue to snooze through the summer.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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