Around Queen's Park, it's a poorly kept secret that Chris Bentley has ambitions of one day succeeding Dalton McGuinty as leader of the Ontario Liberal Party.
Now, in what might be the toughest job in the provincial cabinet, the newly minted Energy Minister faces a make-or-break opportunity to prove his political chops. And his ability to navigate one issue in particular, in the months ahead, will go a long way toward showing what he's made of.
Mr. Bentley's challenge is to take the most contentious aspect of the province's green-energy policy – the removal of municipal authority over the placement of wind turbines – and navigate his way toward a compromise that somehow balances his government's economic objectives and his party's political ones.
When the Liberals decided to build their post-recession jobs strategy around alternative power, they moved quickly – via 2009's Green Energy Act – to bypass the normal zoning process. They continue to believe that it was the only way to avoid every project being endlessly stalled by local politics. And they privately insist that most municipal politicians are just fine with the new arrangement, because it frees them from having to make controversial decisions of their own.
But even if some mayors might like it, their constituents have tended to feel differently. In many corners of Southwestern and Eastern Ontario, the lack of local control has led to wind turbines being seen as a hostile invading force.
It's impossible to say just how much of a role green energy played in this fall's provincial election, and it may well have helped the Liberals hold on to their urban and suburban seats. But it played at least some part in souring their relationship with rural Ontario, where they were virtually swept away.
If they're to have much hope of returning to majority government, the Liberals need to make inroads back into some of those ridings. And sources within their party concede that means showing they've listened to concerns about how decisions are being made.
A soon-to-be-released review of the Feed-in Tariff program, the mechanism for awarding green-energy contracts, provides the Liberals with a window to show that humility. There's little chance they'll retroactively change the rules for developments that have already gotten the green light. But they might apply new standards for future ones, including the 124 wind projects currently awaiting approval.
Here, though, is where matters get tricky for Mr. Bentley. To do as the Progressive Conservatives proposed in a private member's bill this week, and restore the pre-existing zoning rules, would pretty much put an end to green-energy expansion – something the Energy Minister would never be able to get past his boss, even if he wanted to. So instead, he'll have to find a subtler way of signalling a more co-operative approach.
In its mildest form, that could mean requiring developers to consult with local governments early in the process. More meaningful, but less likely, would be capping the number of turbines that can be built in any single municipality or county. Another option would be to better spread the revenues from wind turbines across communities, rather than just leaving one property owner as the only local resident who profits.
The obvious danger, for the Liberals, is that they'll wind up doing enough to slow down their signature economic-development piece, but too little to appease much of anyone.
The FIT review, which is being run out of the provincial bureaucracy, should provide some guidance. But ultimately, it's the Energy Minister who will be expected to provide the political leadership.
Mr. Bentley, who's known for his cautious streak as well as his ambition, could easily be paralyzed by such an unenviable task. But then, it's only a preview of what he could expect if he ever wound up in the Premier's office.