How McGuinty continues to fly above the gas plant scandal

McGuinty remains remarkably free of the what-did-you-know-and-when questions other pols would face under the circumstances. It’s as if no one can believe he could have a part in it.
Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty answers media questions after appearing before the Special Committee on Justice Policy at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Tuesday May 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

One of Dalton McGuinty’s greatest achievements was making a political virtue of dorkiness. Ontarians elected him in 2003 on the apparent belief they were turning Queen’s Park over to the province’s oldest Boy Scout—an image from which he never shrank.

On the contrary, he and his handlers cultivated it, firm in the belief that the smiling cynicism of Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives had raised voter appetite for a Liberal do-gooder. So, over his next two mandates, Dalton McGuinty–Boy Premier morphed into Premier Dad, a straight-backed paternalist guiding Ontarians past crowded classrooms and marauding pit bulls.

A good investment, because today that aura seems to shield McGuinty from the ugliest scandal of his time in office.

On Thursday, Ontario Provincial Police announced criminal charges against two of McGuinty’s closest advisers over the deletion of emails in the province’s gas-plant scandal. Yet the former premier continues to fly above the wreckage, remarkably free of the sort of what-did-you-know-and-when questions other pols would face under the circumstances. It’s as if no one can believe he could have a part in it.

“He wore the whole Premier Dad mantra as something he was proud of,” says Rob Leone, a former Progressive Conservative MPP during McGuinty’s final mandate, and now a political scientist at Western University in London, Ont. “You know, he’s a nice guy, he’s in politics to do the right thing, and I admire the length of time he was able to stay in office.

“But I wondered when I was in opposition: how the heck did this guy manage [to avoid political trouble] for as long as he did?”

Leone has special interest in that topic because, as an MPP on a committee looking into the cancellation of two gas power plants, he helped bring the deletion of the emails to light. Both projects west of Toronto faced heavy local opposition, and the Liberals were accused of placing their own interests ahead of the public’s by scotching the plants before the 2011 election. The move helped save a handful of battleground seats, lifting the Liberals to a minority government.

McGuinty at one point suggested the cancellations would cost taxpayers as little as $230 million, but auditors eventually pegged the cost at $1.1 billion. By then, opposition MPPs were demanding emails on the issue from the premier’s office in hopes of determining when officials knew the real cost of the decision—only to find the messages had been scrubbed from government hard drives.

Leone admits now to a sense of vindication—”There’s some relief that our effort wasn’t all in vain.” But the political scientist in him is no less interested in how McGuinty has maintained his image as a kindly naïf despite the bloody-minded politicking that went on around him. Lost to many observers, he says, is McGuinty’s capacity to cast shade on his opponents (often with the help of third parties like unions and environmental groups) without appearing hostile. “Ultimately, he hasn’t worn some of the problems his government has faced over the last decade.”

Of course, there’s always time. One of the aides charged Thursday, David Livingston, was McGuinty’s chief of staff when the emails were allegedly erased. The other, Laura Miller, was Livingston’s deputy. Each could face prison if the charges of breach of trust and mischief are proven, which raises the stakes considerably. Whatever action Livingston and Miller might have taken, for example, the next, logical question for both defence and prosecution is who, if anyone, was directing them.

But if the former premier fears this will land at his feet, he hasn’t been showing it. Though aware the OPP was investigating, he released a memoir last month in which he dismissed the cover-up accusations as a “malicious” attack by his opponents, and characterized the wiping of hard drives as standard practice during a transfer of political power, meant to protect personal privacy.

Even Leone is sounding charitable these days from his seat in academe, noting that obsessing over McGuinty’s potential role could overshadow the systemic issues of accountability and transparency in government that the whole scandal has raised.

“If we looked into gas plants and found, basically, that information is being deleted out of the public domain forever, what’s happening in other ministries?” he says. “These are the kinds of things that start to emerge when you go down this path.”