How a former Ontario politician found himself in the thick of things again this week

By Steve Paikin - Published on December 5, 2018
former Ontario MPP Glenn Thibeault
Former Liberal MPP Glenn Thibeault this week faced a round of questioning from the Tories’ Select Committee on Financial Accountability. (Peter Power/CP)

There he sat, in the witness chair, before one of the provincial legislature’s more notoriously partisan committees — composed of six Tories and three New Democrats — answering questions about alleged Liberal malfeasance during former premier Kathleen Wynne’s term.

The history books will record that Glenn Thibeault’s tenure as a member of the Ontario legislature was relatively short — but was it ever tumultuous. 

Thibeault came to Ontario politics under the toughest of circumstances. He was the NDP MP for Sudbury, but he’d become disenchanted with his party and its leader. So when the same seat opened up provincially, Thibeault and the Liberals hatched what they thought was a good plan. 

He would jump not only from federal to provincial politics, but also from the NDP to Wynne’s Liberal party to contest the ensuing byelection. Thibeault was a star candidate who, they figured, could do what the previous Liberal candidate in Sudbury, Andrew Olivier, had failed to do in the 2014 election — namely, hold the seat for the governing Grits. 

But when a couple of Liberal operatives sounded out Olivier on what could keep him out of the race for the Liberal nomination —  and thereby give Thibeault a clear path to victory — you-know-what hit the fan. Eventually, the police laid charges: they alleged that the Liberals had offered Olivier an inducement to stay out and as such had violated the Elections Act. Suddenly, Thibeault found himself in the middle of a political maelstrom. He would go on to win the February 2015 byelection by 1,600 votes and beat back the allegations, but his reputation took a hit. 

Thibeault bided his time on Wynne’s backbench until June 2016, when the premier handed him about the toughest cabinet job of all. With electricity prices going through the roof and MPPs receiving daily complaints from constituents, Wynne gave Thibeault the energy portfolio. Her instructions were to lower hydro prices, pronto. 

Eventually, after significant consultations with the premier’s office, as well as with officials in the finance and energy ministries, Thibeault introduced the controversial Fair Hydro Plan. It would see the publicly owned Ontario Power Generation borrow billions of dollars to subsidize electricity prices. In this way, the government could lower prices and keep the costs of borrowing all that money off its books — which would stop the deficit from skyrocketing.

For the Liberals, it seemed like a winner: hydro prices declined markedly, and constituents stopped complaining. But critics, including the auditor general, called it a shell game. The AG refused to sign off on the province’s books — and Thibeault and Co. found themselves neck-deep in another scandal. 

Thibeault’s brief but eventful time at Queen’s Park ended with the June 2018 election. Like so many other Liberals, he placed third in his riding. After 10 years in the federal and provincial parliaments, his political career was over. 

Thibeault has spent the last few months doing what most recovering politicians do: reacquainting himself with his family, doing a little consulting, and marking items off a to-do list, something that’s next to impossible to do when you’re in office and there’s just no time for anything else. Some people still approach Thibeault with political problems to solve. He’s helpful to a point but reminds them that he’s actually no longer their MP or MPP. “Not my circus, not my monkey,” he jokes.  

His two daughters, ages 15 and 11, seem to enjoy having their father, who spent a decade living mostly in Toronto and Ottawa, at home in Sudbury every day. Thibeault becomes emotional when he tells me that his younger daughter recently asked, “Daddy, is it really going to be like this every day now?”

Thibeault admits that he misses being at the centre of the action — “but I don’t miss the BS,” he adds. 

Yesterday, the 49-year-old found himself back in the thick of things. He’d been invited to testify before the Select Committee on Financial Transparency (although it’s not as if he had a choice; the committee has subpoena powers) to explain his role in bringing the Fair Hydro Plan together. He described himself as “the luckiest minister you ever saw” but added, “I certainly didn’t have the easiest job.” 

Tory MPPs on the committee tried to get him to fess up, to admit that the plan — which dumped $4 billion in extra costs on future generations — had been designed primarily to give the Liberals a fighting chance in the 2018 election. New Democrat committee members stated that the Liberals’ accounting practices could end up bringing Ontario’s finances down like a house of cards — “and that is dangerous,” as MPP Peter Tabuns put it.

For his part, Thibeault insisted that neither he nor the premier had been motivated by electoral imperatives, given that the next election was still more than a year away when the Fair Hydro Plan was concocted. He said that he saw a problem and, like any good politician, wanted to solve it. In the next breath, he confessed that being energy minister at the time “was like drinking from a thousand firehoses at once.”

Though at times he might have been uncomfortable, for a few hours on Tuesday afternoon in Queen’ Park Room 151, Thibeault was back at the centre of things. And perhaps he can take some solace in the fact that the new government has left his Fair Hydro Plan in place.  

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