Premier Dalton McGuinty's right-hand man is vigorously defending the outgoing Liberal Leader's decision to prorogue the legislature, amid a growing backlash over a move that is derailing committee hearings into two cancelled gas plants.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said suspending the legislature is a "very ancient tradition of parliament," and is the right thing to do, given Mr. McGuinty's surprise announcement that he is stepping down just one year into his minority government.
"The House will be back," Mr. Duncan said at a news conference on Tuesday. "One of the parties will have a new leader. That will give us a fresh start."
Liberal delegates will choose a successor to Mr. McGuinty on the weekend of Jan. 25-27. Mr. Duncan is one of several cabinet ministers considering a run for the leadership. But the 53-year-old has been an MPP since 1995 and said he does not know if he is prepared to spend several more years in public life.
"You're looking at probably a five– to 10-year commitment of your life," Mr. Duncan said. "That's the one that's kind of front and centre for me."
Mr. Duncan is not the first cabinet minister and potential leadership contender to defend prorogation. Health Minister Deb Matthews and Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid are also solidly behind the decision.
But Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne, who sources say also plans to jump into the leadership race, said last week "there's a discomfort" in having the legislature shut. Former Ontario Liberal MPP and potential leadership contender Gerard Kennedy went further, criticizing the move as a way to avoid scrutiny.
Opposition leaders are urging the government to immediately recall the legislature. In an open letter to Mr. McGuinty on Tuesday, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said the public expects the Premier to be in the legislature, where he can be held accountable for "numerous scandals," including those over the province's Ornge air ambulance system and the cancelled gas plants slated for west of Toronto.
"Your government's decision to shut down the legislature means a government out-of-control has been put on autopilot," says the letter, signed by all 36 Tory caucus members.
Peter Tabuns, the New Democratic Party's energy critic, also expressed dismay that the legislature's finance committee has been blocked for several months at getting answers about the true cost to taxpayers for cancelling the gas plants. The government has said it will cost taxpayers $230-million to cancel the two projects, but opposition members suspect that the tab is much higher.
"Instead of getting answers, Ontarians saw the doors of the legislature slammed in their faces," Mr. Tabuns said.
Mr. Duncan said the legislature is missing only about 18 sitting days by proroguing for an indefinite period, and it also sat an extra 12 days last summer.