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Inside a Cabinet Shuffle – a Cabinet Minister’s Perspective

As speculation grows around a potential Ontario cabinet shuffle a flood of memories of my own time in cabinet, as well as the various shuffles I was part of, have come cascading back. 

The most memorable was my first appointment to cabinet after the 2003 election. Dalton McGuinty and his Liberals were returned with a huge majority government on October 2, 2003, with a new Cabinet to be sworn in on October 23rd, 2003.

Like most of my colleagues, I was on pins and needles until the day my call came from the Premier Designate. Each member of our caucus was instructed to be by the phone to receive a call on Tuesday, October 21st. A million things race through your mind in the days leading up to it.

  • First, is your relationship with the boss good enough that you might be eligible?
  • Second, you let yourself dream a bit – what portfolios would I like to have.
  • Then you get more realistic and wonder what you might do if you are passed over. Ultimately, you know you will go where the Premier sends you.
  • Finally, you conduct a serious self-assessment to understand your strengths but most importantly your weaknesses.

I had witnessed over the years a number of very good people, in all parties, get horribly beaten up. My former colleague Jim Bradley, warned me when I was first elected that “more people talk their way out of this place than talk their way into it”. As giddy and excited as we all were at that moment you knew that eventually, the bloom would come off the rose giving way to the day-to-day grind of governing.

When my call finally came from Dalton McGuinty, we exchanged pleasantries and got right down to business. I was to continue as House Leader but he wanted me to be Energy Minister and Chair of Cabinet too. Energy?? That had not been on my dream Cabinet list. I wasn’t disappointed, just dumbfounded. I did not share any of this with him on that call. I was just grateful to be invited in.

Within moments, he made clear to me what the government was up against. There are three kinds of Cabinet jobs. The major spending and/or central agency ones, minor ones and front-page ones, where every step was scrutinized and wrong decisions can end careers. Energy was one of those.

The previous government’s energy price cap was bleeding the Treasury to the tune of $1.5b a year. He informed me that Ontario was running an unreported $5b deficit for that fiscal year which was more than half over. My first task would be to remove the energy price cap and quickly. The sector itself was in disarray. Emergency generators were located throughout the Province, OPG and Hydro One were a mess and we would soon be receiving a report on what went wrong in the Pickering refurbishment.

There was a very real threat that Ontario would experience rolling brownouts or even another blackout when the weather got very cold or very hot. Winter was approaching. And if all those fires weren’t enough; there was a frying pan too. His top priority was the closure of Ontario’s coal-fired generation plants, within three years, to be replaced by clean, renewable energy.

He told me what my Cabinet Committee assignments were and that I would receive my mandate letter the next day. I would also have periodic results-based meetings with him to review progress on that letter.

Immediately after the swearing-in, we were escorted, as a group, into a committee room. Each of us, starting with the Premier, would be walked into the adjoining committee room and paraded, individually, in front of the press gallery. They would be given a couple of minutes with each of us to pose questions. We were to exit by the side door where we would be greeted by our Deputy Minister who would escort us to our new offices.

I don’t recall the specific questions I was asked but I remember thinking how complex this relationship would become in the coming days and weeks and that I would have to be more precise than I was accustomed to, in the words and language I used. Upon exiting the room, I was greeted by my Deputy Minister Bryne Purchase.

Over the course of that first weekend, I was briefed almost non-stop. I remember feeling overwhelmed and out of my depth. It was hard enough keeping track of the names of the officials much less the technical and political challenges that were now squarely in front of me. There was deep concern within the public service and among energy stakeholders about the new government and some of its “radical ideas”.

The briefing materials were voluminous and not particularly enlightening. While packed full of useful information the new government’s priorities, as outlined in the recent election and my mandate letter, were largely overlooked. When they were acknowledged, it was to remind me of how difficult, impractical, and/or expensive our promises – particularly on coal-fired generation – would be.

Fortunately, there was near unanimity that the cap on the price of electricity had to be removed along with several other significant items. This would keep us busy, and on the same page (and front pages of the major dailies) in the first few weeks while I sorted out what to do on the coal commitment.

I was not afforded the luxury of contemplation or patience. We had to move quickly to deal with a litany of problems.

Four days after being sworn in, I began a round of introductions and briefings with key stakeholders. It was an interesting and eclectic group. Some of them, largely appointees of the previous government, could barely conceal their contempt for me and the new government. Still others, including a number of prominent Conservatives, became close friends and allies and shared with our government the best of their insights and experience.

As I got to know my senior officials at Energy, I came to appreciate the importance of their work. We didn’t always agree, but having the benefit of their unvarnished advice made the government’s work easier and better.

That Tuesday I faced my first pre and post-cabinet scrums. The goodwill and smiling faces of the swearing-in was gone, replaced with tough and unrelenting questions about what we were going to do to keep the lights on and electricity affordable.

Two days later, one week after being sworn in, I gave my first major speech to the sector. We used the speech, which attracted heavy media attention, to set the table for what was to come.

In hindsight, it was a heady time. People who gravitate to politics like nothing more than being in the center of the action. The challenges facing the Ford government are arguably among the greatest ever faced by any Ontario government.

New Ministers, and those who are shuffled to new responsibilities, will have unprecedented challenges. Their success will be our success. We should all wish them well.

by Dwight Duncan, Senior Advisor at McMillan Vantage and Ontario’s former Deputy Premier, Minister of Finance, Chair of the Management Board of Cabinet, Chair of Cabinet, Government House Leader, Minister of Energy, Minister of Revenue, Minister of Government Services, and Opposition House Leader.

mcmillan vantage policy group
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