Kathleen Wynne's Liberals have to hope that for most Ontarians, and especially those voting in five by-elections this Thursday, it will just be white noise.
But the latest revelations in the endless scandal over the cancellations of gas-fired power plants, unlike many of the other twists and turns and the often trumped-up outrage they have generated, deserve to be something more than that.
As much as anything else to date, the e-mails released this week by the opposition Progressive Conservatives – in which senior Liberals discussed their plans to exert behind-the-scenes pressure on the Speaker of the Legislature – make plain the rot that had set in by the final months of Dalton McGuinty's reign, and the threat it posed to the province's best interests.
It is bad enough that Mr. McGuinty's inner circle of political operatives decided amongst themselves that Speaker Dave Levac needed to be made to "change his mind" about his prima facie finding of contempt against then-energy minister Chris Bentley, for withholding gas-plant documents from the legislature's Justice committee. What makes it even worse is who they sent to deliver that message.
"Dave is putting the member from brant on notice that we need better here," wrote deputy chief of staff Laura Miller. Brant is the riding represented by Mr. Levac. And the other "Dave" putting him on notice was Ms. Miller's fellow deputy, Dave Gene.
In Liberal circles, Mr. Gene's reputation preceded him. A ruthless political fixer, he often played bad cop when other Liberals needed to be brought into line.
It is impossible to know what was said at his meeting with Mr. Levac. But if the Liberals wanted to make a detailed argument based on parliamentary precedent, Mr. Gene would not have been their guy. The official line is that he was sent to complain about the unfairness of the Tories trying to press forward with the contempt finding against Mr. Bentley even after the Liberals had consented to release the documents in question. But it is hard not to believe that he was also sent there to either directly or implicitly remind Mr. Levac, a longtime Liberal MPP, of where his bread was buttered.
Thankfully, whatever pressure was exerted does not appear to have swayed the Speaker; Ms. Miller reported back that "DG isn't confident coming out of his chat with Levac," and before long the Liberals had decided to prorogue the legislature. But that does not change the fact that Mr. McGuinty's loyalists were prepared to jeopardize the impartiality of the Speaker's office in order to make a problem go away.
Nor does it make it much better that Mr. McGuinty himself might not have been aware what was going on. If anything, that speaks to the extent to which he had lost control of what was happening under him, or was willing to turn a blind eye toward it.
With his time in office, Mr. McGuinty increasingly allowed a group of cutthroat operatives to do his bidding for him; they in turn seem to have developed a sort of bunker mentality, and elbowed out others who might have balanced their political concerns with policy ones. In the e-mail thread uncovered this week, Don Guy – who served as Mr. McGuinty's campaign director, but had not officially worked in the Premier's office since 2006 – seemed largely to be calling the shots. Meanwhile, in keeping with reports that he was largely out of the loop, Mr. McGuinty's chief of staff David Livingston was not even included in the discussion.
It was this sort of decision-making that by many accounts led to the costly decisions to cancel the gas plants in the first place. Ultimately, it helped pave the way for Mr. McGuinty's ugly exit. And now, it has left his successor with a giant mess just as she's about to face her first test with voters.
Perhaps Ms. Wynne – who had little to do with any of this, and is surrounded by an almost entirely different backroom cast – does not deserve to take the hit for it. And perhaps she won't, if voters have already tired of the subject. But for those who follow the goings-on at Queen's Park closely, at least, it is now more obvious than ever why Mr. McGuinty had to go, and alarming to consider the damage others were willing to do on his behalf as long as he stuck around.