For Ontario's opposition parties, it's the gift that keeps on giving.
And that, really, is as it should be with one of the most cynical bits of political manoeuvring performed by Dalton McGuinty's Liberals during their nearly nine years in power.
The cancellation of a pair of gas-fired power plants that were to have been built in the Greater Toronto Area – one in Oakville, the other in Mississauga – helped the Liberals hold onto a couple of seats in last year's election. But it has since caused them no shortage of grief, the latest in Thursday's finding by the provincial Speaker that there's a prima facie case that Energy Minister Chris Bentley violated his parliamentary privileges by refusing to turn over documents related to the costs of getting out of the construction contracts.
It's possible to have a little sympathy for Mr. Bentley, who may yet be found in contempt of the Legislature. He wasn't in his current post when the decisions were made, and it's plain that he's not calling the shots now. He's just the guy left holding the bag.
But the potential for a contempt finding, in and of itself, isn't the biggest problem for the Liberals; that could be explained away as inside-baseball, or as two opposition parties ganging up in a minority legislature. The last federal election, after all, was triggered by a similar embarrassment for Stephen Harper's Conservatives, and they hardly suffered for it.
The real damage, rather, comes from the spotlight being shone yet again on decisions that fit into several storylines the Liberals would rather avoid:
- As Mr. McGuinty continues trying to implement an austerity agenda, the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to not build power plants allows critics on the right to question his commitment to looking after the bottom line. Meanwhile, as spending on core social services is reined in, those on the left can point to misplaced priorities.
- In rural Ontario, it feeds the perception that Mr. McGuinty plays favourites with the GTA. Following last year’s election, when the Liberals were virtually swept out of ridings that aren’t urban or suburban, defeated MPPs complained that they had more difficulty facing down opponents of wind-energy development after the mid-campaign announcement that power-plant opponents in Mississauga had gotten their way. If the Liberals have any hope of reclaiming a couple of those rural seats, sustained focus on the cost of the suburban climb-downs doesn’t help.
- Most importantly, it feeds into one of Mr. McGuinty’s biggest potential liabilities: the perception that he’s had power too long, and will do anything to keep it. On other about-faces, the Liberals can usually mount a plausible argument that they’re just adapting to the province’s new needs or imperatives; unless you happen to live in Oakville or Mississauga, it’s hard to see the cancellations as being about any needs other than the Liberals’.
When the Liberals decided to scrap the construction plans, they were surely aware there would be some negative press. What they seem to have underestimated is the issue's staying power. Almost a year after the last election, the procedural wrangling will keep it alive for a while longer.