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Politics Free-wheeling Murray threatens to send Liberals’ transit vision off the rails

When Kathleen Wynne named Brad Duguid as Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities in her first cabinet, an obvious question was how he would interact with the sector he was charged with overseeing. What would university presidents, known for a degree of intellectual snobbery, make of a retail politician who makes little pretense of being a policy wonk?

From government insiders, the common response was some variation of the following: "They'll just be relieved not to be dealing with Glen any more."

The Glen in question was Glen Murray, whose stint as TCU minister during Dalton McGuinty's final term saw him butt heads with stakeholders and colleagues alike as he tried to advance a hastily conceived reform plan from which his own government distanced itself.

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The corollary might have been that, while Mr. Duguid was brought in to calm the waters, Mr. Murray was placed somewhere he could do less damage. But that is not quite what happened.

Instead, Mr. Murray was promoted to Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure – giving him responsibility for fighting congestion in the Greater Toronto Area, arguably Ms. Wynne's most ambitious policy priority.

Even taking into account the need to reward Mr. Murray for dropping out of the governing Liberals' leadership race and throwing his limited support behind Ms. Wynne, it was a curious decision. And seven months later, it looks none the less so.

If Mr. Murray is trying to create chaos, he could not be doing a much better job of it. When announcing new Scarborough subway plans this week, most people in his position would have tried to demonstrate broad support for them.

Mr. Murray did not even bother to let Toronto's municipal leaders know it was going to happen, then conducted a bombastic press conference at which he seemingly went out of his way to antagonize them – theatre in keeping with the way he has performed his job to date.

A former Winnipeg mayor who represents the downtown Toronto riding previously held by George Smitherman, Mr. Murray has some admirable qualities. He is intellectually curious, passionate about public policy, and, by many accounts, loyal to his friends. On an otherwise understated government front bench, there is something to be said for a big personality.

He is also almost uniquely undisciplined for a politician at his level. Mr. Murray greatly enjoys the sound of his own voice, seems to say whatever pops into his head at any given moment, and is known for reacting emotionally – sometimes vituperatively – to things that annoy or offend him.

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That all makes him rather poorly suited to forging the consensus needed for Ms. Wynne's transit plans.

Mr. Murray can scarcely go a week without taking gratuitous pot-shots at other levels of government, be it accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of not caring about Toronto or saying TTC chairwoman Karen Stintz (a potential ally) is "becoming the biggest impediment" to new transit development.

Such attacks often come well into the endless scrums Mr. Murray favours, which suggests they are not part of any game plan. Yet, he often then takes to his Twitter account (which he once used to retweet a description of Mr. Harper, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as "bigots") to double down on them.

Even setting aside any effect this may have on Ottawa's inclination to pitch in, or municipal politicians' willingness to play nice, it distracts from whatever transit pitch the government is trying to make to Ontarians. As was the case during his previous post, fellow Liberals complain that it requires much behind-the-scenes wrangling to keep Mr. Murray as focused as he is – to avoid him going completely off the rails, as he did last spring when he told The Globe and Mail that he considered new transit routes already mapped out only "placeholders," because not enough work had gone into them.

If the Liberals are nervous every time Mr. Murray opens his mouth now, they may be hyperventilating by next spring. That's when the government is likely to flesh out controversial plans for dedicated revenue to pay for transit lines and other infrastructure, which could make or break Ms. Wynne's premiership. One ill-considered comment could be fatal.

During his abortive leadership campaign, those who knew Mr. Murray only as an erratic cabinet minister were surprised to find him capable of communicating clearly and concisely when he really sets his mind to it. Unless they plan on replacing him, the Liberals have to hope Mr. Murray rediscovers that side of himself. Because if he makes another mess, they may not be in power long enough to appoint someone else to clean it up.

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