Meet one dark-horse candidate for the Ontario Liberal leadership

By Steve Paikin - Published on March 6, 2019
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Tim Murphy spent decades in the trenches of the federal and provincial Liberal parties.

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It’s surely true that every Liberal in Canada these days is focused on the unprecedented goings-on in Ottawa involving two cabinet resignations — and a prime-ministerial principal secretary, to boot.

But none of those important developments takes away from the fact that the Ontario Liberals are obligated, per their party’s constitution, to have a new, permanent leader in place by June 2020. Given the lead time these things require, potential candidates will need to decide in relatively short order whether they intend to vie for Kathleen Wynne’s old job.

I’ve previously written that Liberals need to decide, first and foremost, whether they want someone connected to the Wynne years (current or former MPPs), or someone completely different — someone with no ties to the disastrous 2018 election, in which the Grits finished third with just seven seats.

But what if there were a candidate who combined both qualities?

Maybe there is.

Tim Murphy will turn 60 later this year, which may be on the high side, given that the Liberals are probably looking for someone prepared to make a 10-year commitment to rebuilding their brand. But while Murphy spent decades in the trenches of the federal and provincial Liberal parties, he doesn’t come off as a grey eminence. And his frequent television appearances convey the impression of someone who’s itching to get the Grits back in the game. The question is: Is he the one to do it?

Voters are clearly re-evaluating what’s considered too old for politics these days. Donald Trump will be 73 in a few months. Two of his toughest opponents (former vice-president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders) are of a similar vintage (76 and 77 years old, respectively). Ontario’s deputy premier, Christine Elliott, is a month away from 64. Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Raymond Cho is 82. In politics today, age really is just a number.

Murphy also has a unique combination of skills among potential Liberal contenders. He was a ministerial adviser at Queen’s Park in the 1980s. He got himself elected as an opposition MPP in the ’90s. He’s been president of the Ontario Liberal Party. He was chief of staff to Paul Martin when Martin was finance minister and later prime minister. He’s co-chaired election campaigns for the provincial party and put Ontario party leaders through debate prep.

There’s a chance that Ontario Liberals will want to make an ideological move back toward their party’s more traditional activist centre (rather than try to outflank the NDP on the left, which is what Premier Wynne attempted) — but Murphy’s got that covered, too. He has a broad remit, as co-chair of McMillan LLP’s aboriginal, government-relations, project-finance, infrastructure, and energy team, focusing on public-private partnerships. Presumably, given his experience as Martin’s chief of staff and Wynne’s election co-chair, Murphy could offer himself up as a candidate who knows how to balance budgets, work with business to build prosperity, and still look out for those who need a helping hand.

Murphy also has a ton of experience as a media “talking head”: he knows how to communicate well on legacy and social media. That’s good news for Liberals already wondering who could go toe-to-toe with Premier Doug Ford at the next leaders’ debate. He’s demonstrated during numerous television appearances that he can be smart and sophisticated when the moment calls for it. He can also be downright chippy and elbows-up when the temperature rises.

Whether to compete for the Liberal leadership will surely be a hard decision for the Toronto lawyer to make. I have no idea what he’s earning, but leaving his law firm to enter politics would almost certainly entail an enormous pay cut, and that’s not for the faint of heart. Since leaving Martin’s PMO, Murphy has had a relatively sane and balanced life, one that combines his love for politics, business, and living well. That balance would surely be thrown off if he were to dip his oar into the Liberal leadership waters.

Despite all the different roles Murphy has played in politics, one gets the sense that he still has unfinished business. Many years ago, I asked Hugh Segal — chief of staff to a former prime minister (Brian Mulroney) and an Ontario premier (Bill Davis) — how much it bugged him that, despite all his accomplishments behind the scenes, he’d never been elected or served in a cabinet. Segal paused before answering, suggesting that I’d hit a tender spot; I suspect that Murphy has that same tender spot. He’s enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in politics. But I bet the part of his resumé that says “MPP 1993-95” eats away at him.

If you’ve followed North American politics over the past decade, you’ll have noticed that the electorate seems to have whiplash when it comes to choosing first ministers. Federally, three and a half years ago, we went from a cool, cerebral, unemotive, tough-as-nails policy wonk in Stephen Harper to a rock star bursting with personality and style who’s happy to take selfies with anyone in Justin Trudeau.

In the United States, could there be two presidents more different than Barack Obama and Trump? And in Ontario’s case, there could hardly be a wider chasm than the one between Wynne and Ford.

Who knows what voters will be looking for in four or eight years (or more). But if history is any indication, they may well decide to whipsaw from a premier who had no prior experience in provincial politics to one who has a lot. They may want to switch from the populist “everyman” to someone who’s as comfortable on Bay Street as on Main Street. Or they may want to move from someone who almost seems to revel in his inability to read a TelePrompter to someone who’s one of the coolest customers around when the red light goes on.

Tim Murphy, we’re watching. It’s your move.

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