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Deb Matthews unlikely to be given a pink slip over Ornge controversy

Little more than two years ago, Dalton McGuinty set an ostensibly high standard for ministerial accountability.

It didn't matter that David Caplan bore less responsibility for the mess at eHealth Ontario than his predecessor, George Smitherman. Mr. Caplan was the Health Minister when the scandal over contracts and expenditures broke, and was judged not to have done enough to prevent it. So he was dumped from cabinet, never to return.

Based on that precedent, the woman who replaced Mr. Caplan should be feeling pretty nervous about now. The controversy at Ornge, the province's air-ambulance service, bears a striking similarity to eHealth in the way it has unfolded – an ambitious system reform implemented in some haste under Mr. Smitherman that has blown up in a successor's face. In some ways it might actually be worse, since the current controversy goes beyond business practices to life-and-death questions about the quality of emergency services.

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But the early signs are that, while she's in for an unpleasant few weeks or months, Health Minister Deb Matthews will keep her job. And Mr. McGuinty will be left trying to talk his way around a cruel reality of politics – that different ministers are subject to different standards.

Mr. Caplan, although well-liked by many of his colleagues, was considered dispensable by the Premier. Despite his senior posting, he was never quite in the top rung of cabinet, and he wasn't central to the government's plans. Although he had files that he tried to move forward – notably, and admirably, mental health – he was something of a placeholder.

Ms. Matthews is a different story. In fact, with the exception of Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, she's the one front-bencher Mr. McGuinty can't afford to lose.

Ms. Matthews has been tasked with flattening health-care spending increases at about 3 per cent annually – a monumental challenge that's central to the government's hopes of eliminating its $16-billion deficit. Largely based on trouncing the province's pharmacists in a fight over prescription drug costs, the Premier's office is convinced she's the minister best suited to winning necessary battles with vested interests.

Even beyond her own portfolio, Ms. Matthews plays a pivotal role in her party. Along with Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne, she carries tremendous sway with the Liberals' centre-left. And Mr. McGuinty is counting on her to help get buy-in, including from many of her cabinet and caucus colleagues, for the government's austerity agenda.

But, of course, Mr. McGuinty won't just come out and say any of this. And that's going to place him in a very difficult position if, for instance, ongoing investigations show any conflict between the air-ambulance agency's non-profit, public operations and its private ones – not to mention if other investigations show deficiencies in emergency responses. Amid allegations that Ms. Matthews was warned about problems with Ornge and didn't take sufficient action, how will the Liberals explain why Ms. Matthews gets to keep her job, when Mr. Caplan didn't?

In part, it appears, they will do so by trying to direct blame toward Mr. Smitherman – something they stayed away from during the furor over eHealth, when he was preparing to run for mayor of Toronto.

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Mr. Smitherman didn't win any friends earlier this month when he wrote to the Toronto Star accusing his successors of failing to oversee or even understand Ornge's operations. And while Mr. McGuinty hasn't publicly criticized his former minister, other Liberals have been increasingly willing to take potshots.

The Liberals will also try to draw a distinction between eHealth and Ornge, by noting that the latter functions far more independently than the former, and thus lends itself less to ministerial oversight.

And to some extent, they'll just wait until we start talking about something else.

Among the reasons Ornge has got so much attention lately is that the government hasn't been making much other news. That will change within the next few weeks, when the release of economist Don Drummond's public-service report kickstarts a tumultuous budget process. Next to the spending decisions to come, controversy over an agency that receives $150-million annually may seem like small potatoes.

Still, it's highly unlikely that opposition politicians will be able to resist calling for Ms. Matthews' head when the Legislature returns next month. And since Mr. McGuinty gave them their pound of flesh last time, it will be hard to blame them.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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