ADAM RADWANSKI Globe and Mail
“…there’s some suggestion that the risk he’s prepared to take – preferential access to valuable transmission capacity, and maybe an investment return above the going rate, to a foreign company with limited experience in developing wind power – is motivated by his eagerness to show quick returns on alternative energy investment before he leaves office.”
George Smitherman is arguably the most powerful minister in Canada’s largest provincial government. He is also a heavyweight contender to become the next mayor of Canada’s largest city.
It’s not a bad position to be in. But it’s increasingly obvious that Mr. Smitherman – who, in addition to being Ontario’s Deputy Premier, serves as its Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Renewal – can’t remain in it for much longer.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who has exhibited rather a great deal of patience with this state of affairs, dearly needs Mr. Smitherman to choose one job or the other. So, too, do Ontarians, because the government is getting bogged down on hugely important decisions.
The extent to which Mr. Smitherman’s situation has become a distraction had been laid plain over the past week, with an unsightly flare-up over a deal in which many billions of dollars are at stake.
That his fellow ministers apparently beat up on him over his courting of Samsung Group – which is looking to get into the wind energy industry in a big way – is uncharacteristic of a cabinet that has generally been cohesive. Even more unusual is that someone saw fit to leak the details of that “gang-tackle” to the media, which suggests a level of combativeness Mr. McGuinty has rarely had to contend with.
The worry among Mr. Smitherman’s colleagues appears to be that he is preparing to take a big risk, then jump to municipal politics and leave them to deal with any fallout. And there’s some suggestion that the risk he’s prepared to take – preferential access to valuable transmission capacity, and maybe an investment return above the going rate, to a foreign company with limited experience in developing wind power – is motivated by his eagerness to show quick returns on alternative energy investment before he leaves office.
Rather than hitting singles with a smaller number of lower-risk investors, to borrow a favourite analogy of Mr. McGuinty’s, Mr. Smitherman seems to be going for a home run with one company that he says will attract $7-billion in investment and create a whopping 15,000 new jobs.
It bears noting that, with fierce competition for the generous rates Ontario is offering for new alternative energy sources, there will be people looking to make hay of any deal, however fair. But even if Mr. Smitherman’s motives are pure, – in the past, he has been almost unfailingly loyal to Mr. McGuinty – his mayoral ambitions allow lobbyists to make credible claims of a conflict of interest.
If those allegations are resonating with his colleagues, as appears to be the case, it may have something to do with lingering resentment about the treatment last month of David Caplan. There are Liberals who believe Mr. Smitherman was heavily responsible for the eHealth spending scandal, even though he stayed in cabinet while Mr. Caplan was dumped as health minister. As a result, the typically brash approach he’s applying to the Samsung deal – and implementation of the Green Energy Act in general – rubs some of them the wrong way.
If it were just going to make the Liberals’ Christmas parties a little uncomfortable, all this would be of minimal concern to the broader public. But the government has put a great deal of faith in green energy to help transform Ontario’s economy, and Samsung could make or break that effort. If Mr. Smitherman’s job uncertainty causes a bad deal to be rushed through, or a good deal to be nixed by his nervous colleagues, the province will suffer for it.
So, too, will the province suffer if Mr. McGuinty’s cabinet becomes prisoner to interpersonal tensions – which, considering Mr. Smitherman has his hands in half the government’s files, could extend beyond the energy sector. At a time when the government is trying to come to terms with its $24.7-billion deficit, and myriad economic challenges, the last thing it needs is for urgent decisions to be delayed by squabbling.
Mr. McGuinty has not rushed Mr. Smitherman out the door, because he can ill afford to lose the most aggressively results-oriented member of his front bench. He’s clearly hoping Mr. Smitherman decides against a mayoral run – which, given a rough few months of media coverage and the shifting dynamics of a race that no longer involves incumbent David Miller, may yet prove the case. But the soap opera needs to end, one way or another, before it taints everyone involved.