Cohn: McGuinty resigns: Chris Bentley could be first casualty of Liberal renewal race
Who will lead the Liberals back into the wilderness, whence they came nearly a decade before?
That’s the challenge facing the leadership aspirants who want to be premier — for a day, a week, a month, maybe two — until the minority Liberal government faces defeat in the legislature. And likely loses a general election.
Undaunted, the would-be successors to Dalton McGuinty tap danced their way into a special cabinet meeting Tuesday, preening before the assembled cameras while playing coy about their ambitions. Filing out, the ministers were rather more subdued.
Inside the cabinet room, the premier laid down the law — insisting they resign as ministers of the Crown before seeking the brass ring. No more car and driver, no corner office or sycophantic staff.
Shedding the perquisites of power (and extra pay) is never easy. But for at least one minister, leaving cabinet behind could prove liberating, even redemptive — if he’s not too late.
Chris Bentley has been energy minister for barely a year. He came in with clean hands but will leave with his fingerprints on a file that has sullied the Liberal government and mucked up the legislature.
Now he is the first casualty of the coming leadership race, paying a heavy personal price for the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga. The controversy, which has been blowing out of control for months, culminated Monday with McGuinty proclaiming his retirement and proroguing the legislature.
If the idea was to give Bentley more breathing room, it has only left him sputtering. A veteran cabinet minister and long-distance runner, he had been training longest and hardest to succeed McGuinty.
The story of his rise, fall and possible recovery will be the narrative arc of this leadership campaign.
A former law professor, Bentley faced the risk of a damaging contempt finding by his fellow lawmakers for withholding ministry documents. He should have resigned by now — proffering penance, rebuilding his reputation and rehabilitating his career.
The government’s bungled, highly politicized unplugging of power plants weren’t his decisions. Yet he willingly took on the task of cleaning up McGuinty’s mess and botched the job.
A long-time attorney general, Bentley is legalistic to the point of being evasive — he’ll reflexively duck a tough question by claiming it’s before the courts. A politician who so righteously lives by the rules dies by the rules — especially if he plays fast and loose with legislative traditions.
Bentley has committed the cardinal sins of sloppiness and dissembling in the public eye.
Late last month, pressured by opposition MPPs and prodded by the Speaker, Bentley grudgingly released 36,000 documents detailing the government’s desperate attempts to paper over and pay off its legal liabilities. Turns out the documents didn’t tell the full story.
Last Friday, Bentley dumped another 20,000 documents, accompanied by letters from senior public servants offering their excuses and explanations. Much of the fault may lie with bureaucrats who cast the net too narrowly, but at least they owned up to their misjudgment within three days — while Bentley waited nearly three weeks to advise MPPs.
All along he led a Liberal counterattack — shouting down and shooting down opposition questions, misleading the legislature long after he knew better. Bentley hid behind the bureaucracy by delegating the search, then dodging responsibility for the results.
Where was the due diligence from the former attorney general?
Bentley inherited a mess not of his own making, but made it worse on his watch. He should have quit of his own volition and waited things out.
Now, if he wants to lead the Liberals to renewal, he will be compelled by the new campaign rules to step down. Belatedly he will be free of his ministerial obligations, but perhaps too late to unburden himself of the accumulated mess.
As McGuinty moves on, Bentley remains weighed down by baggage. Unlike the premier, he didn’t know how to duck — or when to bow out.