Unlike some of his colleagues on the Ontario legislature's justice committee, Peter Tabuns is not prone to grandstanding in search of a place in the news clips.
But toward the end of Don Guy's frequently exasperating testimony on Tuesday morning about his role in the province's gas-plants scandal, the veteran New Democratic MPP nevertheless produced the line of the day.
"Mr. Guy, you've got a long history of running campaigns; you are seen as a very capable and skilled campaign manager," he said by way of set-up. "You're not credible as an errand boy."
For 90 minutes, that was precisely the self-portrait Mr. Guy – the strategist who masterminded Dalton McGuinty's three consecutive election victories, and who cast a long shadow over Queen's Park between them – tried to paint. It was "completely inaccurate" to suggest he had been calling the shots for the government, or even helped shape campaign promises, such as the costly commitment a couple of weeks before the 2011 election to cancel a power plant in Mississauga. He was merely an "implementer" for a premier who barely needed political advice at all, because he was guided by his "inner star."
It was a performance that at times strained credulity and at others all but abandoned any attempt at it. At one point, Mr. Guy was asked by Mr. Tabuns's caucus colleague Gilles Bisson whether he had been involved in talks about trying to influence the Speaker of the Legislature to change a ruling. "No," Mr. Guy responded flatly, even though there are e-mails on the public record that show him discussing precisely that.
Before his answers, Mr. Guy often displayed apparent confusion. As straightforward questions about his role in the controversy were greeted with "I beg your pardon?" or "I'm sorry?", Mr. Guy seemed to be going out of his way to appear taken aback by the mere notion that he helped steer government policy.
If this had merely been a backroom veteran responding defensively to being placed in the spotlight, it would have been one thing. What was especially troubling about Mr. Guy's appearance was that it seemed to be emblematic of the way he operated behind the scenes – "the most Don-like performance imaginable," as a former colleague of his assessed.
Under different circumstances, playing down one's influence might be an endearing form of modesty. The problem in this case is that it seems to have served as cover.
When Mr. Guy was Mr. McGuinty's chief of staff during the Liberals' first term in office, his influence was transparent. But for all his protestations, it is obvious both from paper trails and from conversations with insiders that he subsequently kept a strong hand in the government's deliberations over major decisions – benefiting from both respect and fear that he commanded among staff who knew he had the premier's ear, and who struggled to read his mind because of his cryptic style of communicating. At the same time, he had enough distance to mostly maintain plausible deniability, and as it turns out is willing to issue denials even when they're not all that plausible.
It's Mr. McGuinty who is ultimately responsible for any bad decisions – and the power-plant cancellations certainly fit the bill – made under his watch. Premiers receive all manner of guidance, and choose from it as they see fit. But ideally, it comes from a relatively transparent support structure. Mr. Guy's testimony instead suggested a lack of accountability that helps explain why the government went off the rails.
By his account, Mr. Guy no longer wields as much influence in Ontario. He says he is "no longer" a member of the core campaign team of Mr. McGuinty's successor, Kathleen Wynne, and an official for Ms. Wynne backed that up.
Given that in spite of his best efforts his name is now irrevocably tied to the gas plants, though, the opposition can be expected to continue linking him to the next Liberal campaign. And after Tuesday's appearance, it will be hard to blame them if they don't take his denials as gospel.