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Energy Minister Bentley’s exit says much about the state of Ontario politics

As recently as this past summer, Chris Bentley was one of the very few Ontario Liberals positioning himself as a potential replacement for Premier Dalton McGuinty.

On Thursday, as current and former cabinet colleagues were preparing to jump into their party's sudden leadership race, the Energy Minister announced that he's leaving provincial politics altogether. Not only will he not try for Mr. McGuinty's job; he won't even seek re-election in his riding of London West.

He now stands as perhaps the biggest casualty of the dysfunction that has plagued Ontario's minority government – thrown under the bus by his own party, humiliated by a bloodthirsty opposition, and dealt a final blow by bureaucratic incompetence.

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Mr. Bentley was essentially doomed the moment he was handed the Energy portfolio following last year's election. The Liberals had made highly political pre-election commitments to cancel construction of a pair of gas-fired power plants in the Greater Toronto Area, leaving themselves a big mess to clean up. When the enormous bills for these cancellations came to light this fall, Mr. Bentley was the one stuck trying to justify them.

Meanwhile, he was unable to provide documentation about the negotiations, demanded by the two opposition parties, in a timely fashion. Most everyone around Queen's Park had the sense Mr. Bentley's hands were tied by operatives in and around the Premier's Office calling the shots. Nevertheless, he was the one who found himself facing contempt charges.

Some opposition members conceded discomfort with going that hard after him. But the Progressive Conservatives in particular were clearly determined to keep drawing attention to the power-plant cancellations – a symbol of the Liberals' cynicism, and a hot issue in rural areas aggrieved that they couldn't similarly get wind-energy plans scrapped. The contempt proceedings were the best way of doing it.

Just when it looked like the issue might be cooling down (Tories now claim they were considering dropping the contempt charge), his luck got even worse. It turned out that the documents the government had finally released, which he had repeatedly insisted were complete, were in fact missing thousands of pages.

By the standards of ministerial accountability, this one could be pinned more directly on Mr. Bentley, and there is some question of whether he waited too long to acknowledge what had happened. But it seems more or less to have been a case of bungling by mid-level bureaucrats at the Energy ministry and the Ontario Power Authority.

In any event, amid talk of a second contempt charge, Mr. Bentley's leadership hopes were essentially over – even if he took a little while to set them aside. Especially considering the (possibly false) perception that Mr. McGuinty's unpopular prorogation of the Legislature was largely to put his minister out of his misery, he would have had difficulty having his campaign taken seriously.

Truth be told, the leadership buzz around Mr. Bentley always seemed a little overblown. Although smart and personable, he's not proven himself an especially strong communicator, and his record in cabinet – during previous stints as Labour Minister and Attorney-General – is unspectacular. Ironic though it may be, given the fate that recently befell him, those who've watched him closely suggest he's too cautious for his own good.

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But he should have had a chance to make his case to his fellow Liberals. That he no longer even wants to sit in the Legislature will stand as a reminder of all the ugliness that has overtaken the place. And it's particularly an indictment of a governing party that wound up eating its own.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

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

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