There’s an old expression: it’s hard to get into politics, and it’s just as hard to get out. Two prominent Ontario Liberals are wrestling with that maxim right now.
As deputy premier and minister for advanced education and skills development, London’s Deb Matthews has been Premier Kathleen Wynne’s most trusted elected confidant. Matthews was voted into office for the first time in 2003, meaning she’s spent her entire career in provincial politics on the government side of the House. Both the current premier and her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, came to lean on Matthews. After letting her learn the ropes on the backbenches, McGuinty started her off as minister of children’s and youth services and minister responsible for women’s issues, then gave her a big promotion to health minister in 2009. She eventually became deputy premier when Wynne assumed power.
Once again, as she did in the last campaign, Matthews has assumed the role of Liberal election co-chair. But tellingly, she has yet to call a party nomination meeting for her riding of London North Centre to confirm her candidacy in next June’s grand consultation with the people.
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It’s an awkward issue for Matthews. Politics is in her (and her family’s) blood. Her brother-in-law is former Ontario premier David Peterson. Her father was once president of the federal Progressive Conservative party.
Given the Liberals’ lack of popularity, Premier Wynne needs every well-known current MPP to seek re-election on the assumption that their better name recognition will help the party’s efforts to win again. Furthermore, current MPPs always open themselves up to allegations that they’ve lost confidence in the premier or the government if they decide not to run again.
Matthews was a guest on The Agenda back in June. I asked why unlike so many other Liberal MPPs she still hadn’t set a date for a nomination meeting. She skilfully danced around the question, but to me the inescapable conclusion was that she hadn’t set a date because she wasn’t planning to run again. Matthews herself won’t confirm that, but I’ve spoken to a few of her friends recently who say the deputy premier has made the decision and is waiting for the right time to announce it. Given she’s spent 14 years in provincial politics and is approaching her mid-60s, no one should be shocked when Matthews announces she’s packing it in as a candidate. Still, it will be a big loss for Wynne.
Meanwhile, Brad Duguid has a different problem. The minister of economic development and growth has already announced he won’t be a candidate in next year’s election. But he’s made no secret of the fact that politics has been his life for three decades and getting out of the game is harder than he’d imagined.
“I know I will really miss the adrenaline rush that politics provides (kind of like a pro-athlete missing the highs and lows of sport),” he emailed me. “However, I'm 55 years old, healthier and more energetic than ever, with a long enough runway to accomplish something meaningful outside of politics. Would be less than forthright if I didn't share with you some sense of anxiety at this point at least until I determine my next steps.”
Complicating Duguid’s decision to escape politics is the fact that in his own political backyard in Scarborough, an opportunity has opened up. The tragic death of Scarborough-Agincourt MP Arnold Chan at age 50 means there will be a byelection in that riding in the months ahead. And the fact is, Duguid probably represents the federal Liberal Party’s best hopes for retaining the seat. He is extremely well known, has a solid organization in place, and has a well-regarded track record of public service.
The big problem, of course, is that he’s already said he’s done with politics, and it would certainly look passing strange if he were to pack it in with the provincial Liberals, only to re-emerge as a candidate with their federal cousins.
I’m reliably advised by a senior federal Liberal source that the Trudeau team is not reaching out to Duguid in hopes of his becoming a candidate. But that wouldn’t stop Scarborough Liberals from making an overture or Duguid kicking the tires on the prospect himself.
I am not a cynical person, but I do have to note that nowhere in our email exchanges did Duguid actually categorically rule out seeking the Scarborough-Agincourt nomination.
As you can see, politics is a complicated business, especially when you’re trying to walk away.