The Inside Agenda Blog

Dwight Duncan Steps Out

by Steve Paikin Thursday February 7, 2013

Dwight Duncan is leaving public life after being an MPP since 1995, but he's not exactly going out the way he planned.

A couple of weeks ago, Duncan imagined giving up his seat for his friend from Windsor, Sandra Pupatello, who presumably would go on to win the Ontario Liberal leadership, then move seamlessly into a byelection victory in Duncan's old seat.

But, of course, politics often doesn't unfold according to plan. Pupatello didn't win the leadership, and now Duncan finds himself stepping aside without anyone in mind to take over his Windsor-Tecumseh riding. 

Dwight Duncan's resignation announcement at Queen's Park on Thursday, February 7, 2013.

Duncan has had quite the tumultuous career at Queen's Park. His first election victory came in 1995, just in time to see the Common Sense Revolution sweep through the legislature.

He spent 1995 to 2003 in opposition, part of the Liberals' attack machine, along with Pupatello and George Smitherman.

He finally moved to the government side of the chamber with Dalton McGuinty's victory over Ernie Eves in the 2003 election.

Because of strange circumstances, Duncan actually became minister of energy twice and minister of finance twice as well.

His last major address as finance minister came recently at the Canadian Club, where Duncan left the audience with some ominous news. He referred to Ontario's massive debt as a "ticking time bomb," and urged whoever succeeded him to stay the course on deficit reduction. His opponents will point out the debt has skyrocketed under Duncan's tenure as finance minister, and that's true. It's also true of every other finance minister in the world. "All three parties in Ontario have doubled the debt during their tenure," Duncan pointed out on Thursday. Saving General Motors and Chrysler with massive, multi-billion loans certainly didn't immediately help the bottom line. 

At the announcement to save GM & Chrysler (left-to-right): Ontario cabinet ministers Michael Bryant and Dwight Duncan, and federal cabinet ministers Tony Clement and Jim Flaherty. 

Many observers thought the 2013 Ontario Liberal leadership was Duncan's for the asking, after McGuinty's departure. But Duncan didn't ask for it. He teased his supporters by suggesting he was getting a lot of pressure to run and wanted time to think it over. But in the end, he stuck to his original plan, which essentially was: when McGuinty goes, I go, too.

He ran for the party leadership in 1996, showing third on the first ballot. He hoped and expected fourth-place Dalton McGuinty to move to him after the second ballot, but it never happened. McGuinty eventually passed Duncan and won the leadership on the fifth ballot. Duncan ticked off a lot of his supporters by moving to Gerard Kennedy before that fifth ballot. But given his stature in the party today, that feels like a long time ago. 

Duncan may have been in elective politics since 1995, but he's been a Liberal partisan for 40 years. He's part of a large group of Windsorites who learned politics at the foot of the legendary Herb Gray, former deputy prime minister of Canada, and Paul Martin Sr., former cabinet minister and father of a future prime minister of the same name.

It's ironic that Duncan chose this moment to leave, since it means he won't have a chance for a farewell address in the legislature, a place where he was totally at home. It was not unusual to see Duncan, arms flailing, offering up another stemwinder of a speech, excoriating the opposition for all its ills.

But he says he wanted to leave now because he felt it was important for the new leader and the party to have a genuine shot at renewal, which is harder to do when a lot of the more senior members of government want to hang around. (We note that London's Chris Bentley and Sudbury's Rick Bartolucci have also announced they won't stand for re-election.)

There were several huge policy developments that happened on Duncan's watch as finance minister. Topping the list would be the implementation of the Harmonized Sales Tax. Previously, Ontario's sales tax only applied to retail goods. By harmonizing the tax with the federal GST so that it covered not just retail goods but services as well, Duncan fathered the most significant tax policy change in Ontario in more than half a century. 

And because the federal Conservative government paid the Ontario treasury more than $4 billion to help implement the tax, the issue never became a political football for the Liberals. The opposition Tories' efforts to blast Duncan on this issue never took off, since Duncan could rightly say the reform wouldn't have been possible without the help of Tim Hudak's political mentor, the federal finance minister Jim Flaherty.

Duncan also reminded reporters on Thursday that it's impossible to be a good finance minister unless you've got the support of the boss. "There can't be an inch of daylight between the finance minister and the premier," he said. 

Canadians know a dysfunctional relationship between a finance minister and first minister when they see one -- come on down Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien. There was never a hint of trouble between Duncan and McGuinty over the years, although there surely must have been some tense discussions along the way.

Yes, Dwight Duncan brought in some of the most unbalanced budgets in Ontario history. As he departs, the deficit clocks in at more than $11 billion. But he has some political cover on those huge deficits. He could always point to Ottawa and say not only are their deficit numbers bigger, but they're never hitting their targets, unlike Ontario, which did under Duncan's supervision.

He's a little grayer today than he was when the picture above was taken some time ago. But he's also thinner. Somewhere along the way, he learned to get a handle on his weight, which had always been a problem in his younger days. 

Duncan's days in politics may be over for now, but maybe not forever. While rumour has it a job on Bay Street awaits, Duncan has been clear to leave the door open for a return to politics, perhaps in two years for a federal Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau.

At Thursday's farewell press conference, I asked him who the best finance minister was in Ontario history. A great student of history himself, Duncan said Leslie Frost, who incredibly was both premier and minister of finance (then called "treasurer") at the same time. Frost was treasurer from 1943 to 1958 in total, and premier from 1949 to 1961. In fact, Frost introduced the sales tax in Ontario. They nicknamed it the "Frost bite."

"I'm not here to say 'goodbye,'" Duncan said in a mellow mood at Thursday's farewell press conference. "I'm here to say 'thank you.'" One of toughest partisans in the chamber, he resisted every opportunity to take a poke at his opponents. Even when I told him opposition leader Hudak's comments today, that Duncan would be remembered for sky-high deficits, Duncan would only respond: "Tim Hudak is a good man."

You get the feeling he's really gonna miss the place.