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Premier McGuinty’s best defence for minister facing contempt? Staying out of it

Too late, for the taste of some Ontario Liberals, Dalton McGuinty leapt to the defence of his embattled Energy Minister on Tuesday.

For Chris Bentley's sake, perhaps it would have been better if the Premier had left well enough alone.

Having previously been dismissive of provincial opposition parties' push toward finding Mr. Bentley in contempt of the Legislature, Mr. McGuinty suddenly shifted to presenting it as one of history's great injustices. Or at least, as something that could "have profound, personal consequences for one of our honourable colleagues and represent a sad and dangerous departure from a tradition of respect and honour."

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Depending on whom one listens to, Mr. McGuinty was either genuinely upset, or was trying to appease members of his caucus annoyed that a minister was taking the fall for a mess around power-plant cancellations that is clearly of the Premier's office's making. Probably, it was a bit of both. In any event, his appeal did nothing to stop Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats from voting en masse to advance the contempt process to the committee stage.

What Mr. McGuinty's intervention did achieve was to give the matter more prominence than it otherwise would have had. When a premier gives late-evening notice that he's cancelling his previously scheduled events to make a special statement the following morning, he can rest assured that a lot of journalists will turn up. And when he then raises the stakes with an uncharacteristically animated performance, he succeeds in getting some people outside the Queen's Park bubble to pay attention.

That, really, is exactly what the opposition is trying to achieve with the whole contempt business in the first place. Ostensibly it's about the government`s failure to turn over documents related to the scrapping of projects in Oakville and Mississauga in a timely fashion, and there may indeed be frustration with the Liberals' perceived obstructionism. But mostly, it's about keeping the cancellations – costly, politically motivated decisions that annoy most Ontarians who hear about them – in the news for as long as possible.

When Mr. McGuinty made a last-minute pitch for the contempt investigation to be dropped, with a committee still looking into the circumstances around the power-plant cancellations, the NDP seemed at least slightly open to it; the Tories rejected it, preventing it from getting the unanimous consent it would have needed.

There's an obvious reason for that. Because they're highly unusual, and in theory (though not really in practice) can lead to punishments up to and including jail time, contempt charges can puncture the aforementioned bubble – cracking the hourly news, and going into heavy rotation on the CP24 news crawl.

Mr. McGuinty is not wrong that it's mean-spirited for the opposition to try to get that kind of play by tarnishing the reputation of someone who everyone knows has played a peripheral role in this saga. A couple of weeks ago, the Tories were feigning indignation that the government was hanging Mr. Bentley out to dry by not releasing the documents. Then the documents were coughed up, and they proceeded with trying to get their pound of flesh anyway.

But effectively waving his arms in the air and telling everyone to pay attention probably wasn't the best way for Mr. McGuinty to minimize the grief for his minister, or for himself. And the fact that he swung so wildly away from last week's strategy plays into one of the more common criticisms of his government made by insiders – that it's careening from crisis to crisis, making up defensive strategy on the fly.

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If there's an upside for the Liberals, it's that at a time when their caucus is struggling with a divisive austerity agenda, Mr. McGuinty's rallying cry to get behind Mr. Bentley should help unite the party. But when MPPs go back to their ridings during the Thanksgiving break, they may find that it's also achieved the rare feat of getting Ontarians to talk about provincial politics between elections, and not in the way they'd like.

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