Let’s acknowledge off the top that people enter and exit politics all the time. Sometimes the voters want you to stay. Other times, politicians say they’re leaving for health reasons.
“Yeah, the voters got sick of me,” goes the joke.
Let’s also acknowledge that if you’re a senior cabinet minister for a party that’s been in power for 15 years, there’s a right way and a wrong way to tell your premier that you’re not sticking around to help fight the good fight.
Ontario cabinet ministers Deb Matthews, Liz Sandals, and Brad Duguid all announced several months ago that they wouldn’t be standing for re-election. They did a solid for Kathleen Wynne. By giving her plenty of notice, they gave the premier time to shuffle her cabinet in a way that granted more responsibility to some existing members and promoted others from the backbench.
Then there’s the case of Eric Hoskins.
Hoskins has been the MPP for St. Paul’s for almost a decade and health minister — one of the toughest and most prestigious portfolios in any provincial government — for almost four years. He got himself nominated to run in the June election and thus gave every indication that he planned to continue serving the Ontario Liberals’ cause.
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But earlier this week, he shocked his fellow party members by abruptly announcing his immediate resignation as both health minister and MPP and taking a job with the federal government to chair a panel whose mission is to develop a national pharmacare program.
“We recognize that we need a strategy to deal with the fact that not everyone has access, and we need to do it in a way that’s responsible — that deals with the gaps but doesn’t throw out the system that we currently have,” federal finance minister Bill Morneau said on Wednesday. Hoskins will be responsible for squaring that circle.
At some level, this move makes sense. Having just brought in pharmacare for Ontarians under the age of 25, Hoskins is certainly up to speed on one of the most important issues in health care today. He’s also a medical doctor and has practised his profession all over the world.
Politically, it also makes sense for Hoskins: he probably came to realize that he wasn’t going to be premier anytime soon (he ran for the Liberal leadership in 2013 and came last on the first ballot). This new job moves him to the federal arena, where he actually first ran for office (in Haldimand–Norfolk in 2008, where he lost to Conservative cabinet minister Diane Finley). Hoskins has always been an ambitious politician (nothing wrong with that; it’s sort of a prerequisite in the job), and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if, after completing his current mission, he were to consider seeking the federal Liberal nomination in St. Paul’s, should the current sitting member, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, decide she’s had enough of politics.
All that may make sense for Hoskins and the federal government, but none of it makes any sense for the Ontario Liberals. I’m told by a reliable, high-level provincial Liberal source that it was Hoskins who sought out the federal appointment, not vice-versa. And while Hoskins may take pains to insist this interpretation is wrong, it’s hard not to see this move as an 11th-hour stab in the back to a government that’s already fighting unpopularity and a growing sense that re-election is hopeless. (I reached out to Hoskins twice on Wednesday to get his side of the story, but he has not responded.)
Ontario Liberals will consider this a highly disloyal act. The premier was no doubt spitting bullets when she got the news, though she was classy enough to issue a press release praising Hoskins’s accomplishments during his time with the health portfolio.
Hoskins may go on to achieve great things in Canadian health care. He may actually be the guy who helps bring in a genuine national pharmacare program, an idea governments have toyed with for decades but have never actually achieved. If that happens, his legacy as a historic figure in Canadian politics will be secured.
But make no mistake: that’s not what Ontario Liberals are thinking today. They are furious at what they see as a selfish, disloyal gesture. And in politics, loyalty is everything.