If the latest skirmish over the Scarborough subway had a leitmotif, it was that of the minister as loose cannon.
“Ontario’s transportation minister [Glen Murray],” opined the National Post’s Kelly McParland, “appears to have drunk deeply from the well of Fordian politics, and is doing his best to emulate — if not surpass — the mayor in the halls of bunglehood.”
Wondering who writes his “gobbledygook,” The Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy dismissed Murray as a “caricature of a caricature.”
The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee, describing last week’s developments as the moment when tragedy turns to farce, condemned the minister’s “back of the napkin” proposal as “the latest in a dizzying series of plans and counter-plans, feuds and food fights.”
Rounding out this foursome, The Star’s editorial board thundered on Friday that, “Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray’s latest announcement would be laughable if it weren’t such bad public policy. That hasn’t stopped him from shamelessly trumpeting his ill-conceived plan.”
It’s not often that all four broadsheets — not to mention the alt-weeklys, the bloggers and the #topoli twitteristas — are so ideologically aligned on an issue.
But with all due respect to my colleagues, the Murray-as-freelance-villain narrative is a convenient fiction deliberately perpetrated by the Liberals. Setting aside the intemperate quotables, Murray, from where I sit, is faithfully serving his allegedly level-headed premier, without whose approval none of this would be taking place.
When I checked Factiva over the weekend, it showed that Wynne had garnered over 80 more print/online media mentions than Murray mustered between Wednesday (the day of the announcement) and Sunday (330 to 246, respectively). But the premier’s name appeared alongside Murray’s in only 50 of those articles (i.e., less than one in six) – compelling proof that she’s succeeded in keeping her distance from this political hand grenade.
Yet he’s clearly her cabinet’s designated flack catcher, and no one should be lulled into believing that Murray’s actions on this file are anything but Wynne-stamped government policy.
Before I get to the issue of what this tactic says about Wynne, let me note that many premiers and prime ministers have an enforcer/loud-mouth on the front bench to soak up the political attention that the leader would prefer to avoid.
Brian Mulroney had John Crosbie. Stephen Harper uses John Baird or the recently departed Vic Toews. Jean Chretien relied on Paul Martin to break all that harsh fiscal news. And lest we forget, Murray’s predecessor in Toronto Centre, George Smitherman, played that exact role for Dalton McGuinty, who never liked to reveal the dirt beneath his fingernails.
If the analogy holds, it would be fair to say that the Liberals have someone in cabinet who has succeeded in making us feel nostalgic about Furious George. But the parallels are undeniable: Smitherman, notoriously, liked to bang on his officials heads and appeared to be politically fearless in taking on powerful vested interests (namely, the hospital sector, the drug companies, and the nuclear industry).
But no one wondered whether Smitherman was doing anything but the premier’s bidding. He was the government, not some crazy-ass side-show.
It’s no different with Murray, even if he has succeeded in making Smitherman look like a zen-master. There’s no sunlight between Murray and Wynne, and suggestions to the contrary provide Wynne with precisely the sort of political cover she does not deserve at this moment.
Wynne, after all, came into office promising a more conciliatory form of government than McGuinty practiced at the end. She’s spent her career espousing sober, consultative politics, as opposed to the my-way-or-the-subway form. In my mind, she was a politician who listened to experts (e.g., during her long stint as education minister) inside and outside government, and respected processes.
And, lest anyone forget, Wynne’s public career really began during the Citizen For Local Democracy pep rallies in the Metropolitan United Church in 1997, when she and John Sewell fought the good fight to oppose the anti-Toronto unilateralism of the Mike Harris Tories.
In fact, I’ve always seen Wynne as a politician who actually believed that local government entities – school boards, municipalities, etc. – should receive more respect and autonomy from high-handed provincial regimes. (Murray, as mayor of Winnipeg, expended a lot of breath on that very cause about a dozen years ago.)
That Wynne, I regret to say, has vanished stage right — persuaded by whomever she’s currently listening to that it makes more sense, in terms of retail politics, to unleash an enforcer as a way of protecting Liberal seats in Scarborough.
Gone, too, is her brave leadership talk about revenue tools and a fix for a generation and any meaningful commitment to designing a rational inter-governmental approval process for moving ahead with transit expansion in the GTA.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Wynne has spent much of her time in the premier’s office meticulously trying to scalpel her fingerprints off the record of the latter days of the McGuinty regime. As I read the storyline, she’s emerged as the sort of leader who prefers to duck out of the limelight when things get hot and heavy.
In reality, the loose cannon in this subway debacle is Kathleen Wynne, who authorized a senior cabinet minister to detonate an intricately negotiated agreement (between the City, the TTC and Metrolinx) in pursuit of short-term political gain. Any other reading of last week’s Punch and Judy show is simply naive.