When Bob Chiarelli stepped to the microphone on Tuesday afternoon, you could practically feel the air go out of the room.
The larger-than-usual gathering of reporters at Queen's Park was chomping at the bit to ask Premier Kathleen Wynne about the provincial Auditor-General's findings about the gas-plants scandal inherited from Dalton McGuinty; while the septuagenarian Energy Minister beside her rambled on about the importance of looking at "the totality of the rate base," there was a noticeable degree of impatient shuffling.
It was a characteristic performance by Mr. Chiarelli, whose lack of flash is anathema to those looking for a decent quote or clip – and much more welcome among his fellow Liberals. In his second stint at Queen's Park after serving a pair of terms as Ottawa's mayor, he was put into a job in which several predecessors had self-immolated in hope that he could turn down the temperature. And taking into account that nobody could actually make Ms. Wynne's government look good on energy policy at this point, he has done about as well as could be expected.
Mr. Chiarelli has also managed to impress another, more demanding audience: an energy sector with a reputation for chewing up ministers and spitting them out.
It has been a long time since that industry had a minister it was happy with. George Smitherman was popular among some green-energy proponents, given the amount of money he threw at them, but was viewed as unbearably meddlesome and bull-headed by other corners (an analysis that, in retrospect, is difficult to quarrel with). Brad Duguid was dismissed as unsubstantive, a retail politician unable to move beyond talking points and grasp what might be the government's most complex file. Chris Bentley was preoccupied with managing the gas-plants fallout, and was indecisive besides.
By contrast, eight months after he took the job, the reviews of Mr. Chiarelli are almost unnervingly positive. He is described as low-key and well briefed; as collaborative and consultative, but decisive enough to act on the advice he receives. Perhaps most importantly, from the industry's perspective, he is praised for not coming into the job with an activist agenda of his own, and instead focusing on managing situations as they require.
In essence, Mr. Chiarelli is being credited for mostly treating the file rationally and depoliticizing it as much as possible. Of course, politics can never be entirely removed from energy policy, as evidenced by the government's scrapping of plans to purchase new nuclear reactors – which, while justifiable on grounds of sluggish demand and the emergence of other options, is motivated at least partly by the Liberals' need to show they can contain soaring costs and likely by a desire to play to left-of-centre voters. But these things are all relative.
It is notable that depoliticization also earned praise for Dwight Duncan – the energy minister for most of Mr. McGuinty's first term, and the last one the sector liked. It could be argued that under Mr. Duncan energy policy was actually too depoliticized, which led to decisions such as gas plants being sited in places where there would be strong local opposition. But certainly, the government managed to take major steps toward updating a decrepit energy grid without getting caught up in many ill-considered schemes or pet projects.
Just what the purported rediscovery of this approach amounts to remains to be seen, perhaps until the Liberals release their long-term energy plan in the next few months. But even if Mr. Chiarelli remains in the industry's good books, there is one very big qualifier: the all but impossible task of appeasing the general public.
Mr. Duncan had the luxury of coming in with a clean slate, because he was cleaning up a mess (including a botched privatization scheme) left behind by a Progressive Conservative government. What Mr. Chiarelli has been saddled with – prices that are higher than they need to be, tales of mismanagement, rural unrest over wind turbines – was his own government's doing. Those problems can perhaps be managed to limit their consequences, but they can't be made to go away altogether. So he's still likely to find a lot of ire directed toward him.
Mr. Chiarelli, a veteran politician with no known ambitions beyond his current job, may be better suited to absorb that anger and even to dull it than most of his colleagues would be. Still, one can't help but wonder how much more smoothly things would've gone if he'd gotten that job a few years earlier.
Adam Radwanski is The Globe's columnist covering Ontario politics.