Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s pending departure has triggered a renewal process for the governing Liberals, but party executives know they are working against the clock to name a successor.
When McGuinty announced that he was stepping down on Monday night, the Liberal leader also said he had asked his party to arrange a leadership conference as soon as possible.
Yasir Naqvi, the president of the Ontario Liberal Party, said that he will meet with executive committee members on Tuesday to start the process toward a convention.
That committee will then set the rules for leadership contenders.
"Over the next week or so, we’ll work on those specific rules and be able to then present that to everyone," Naqvi told CBC News Network on Tuesday.
McGuinty told his ministers Tuesday that they would have to quit cabinet if they were to run for his job. Most said it was premature to talk about such announcements.
The party constitution requires the Liberals to pick a new leader within six months, but Liberal campaign co-chair Greg Sorbara said the convention will happen sooner rather than later.
"It's certainly not going to be six months," Sorbara told CBC News in an interview on Tuesday.
"We have business to do here and the parliament is for the time being, prorogued, so I don’t expect it’s going to be a long time."
He acknowledged that an election could come at any time after the legislature resumes, following the prorogation that McGuinty announced on Monday night.
"We don’t know how much longer the opposition parties will let this parliament last," Sorbara said.
Resignation prompts questions
McGuinty has agreed to stay on as premier and Liberal leader until a successor is chosen, but he would not answer questions Monday about his future, prompting speculation that he might seek leadership of the federal Liberals.
The Ontario Liberals have been under fire for months for an out-of-control air ambulance service and faced a second contempt motion Monday for cancelling gas power-generation plants in Mississauga and Oakville at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers.
McGuinty insisted it wasn't the controversy over the gas plants that prompted his sudden resignation
Most commentators reacting Tuesday to McGuinty’s decision said Ontario’s premier had hit a roadblock getting his political agenda through a minority legislature. McGuinty needed support from other parties to ensure public-sector wages are frozen as the province tries to pare back a deficit in the $14-billion range.
Speaking on CBC's Metro Morning, Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said McGuinty's resignation was forced once he realized support for his economic plan wasn’t forthcoming.
"The Conservatives were not going to support him on that," said Jacek. "Since he doesn’t have a majority in the legislature, it means he can’t really implement his plan on public finances. His economic plan had hit a dead end and there was really nowhere for him to go."
Also speaking on Metro Morning, the CBC news anchor and political analyst Robert Fisher said McGuinty struggled to adjust to operating a minority government after holding a majority for eight years.
"This government had a really difficult time finding that proper balance," said Fisher. "It was probably time for him to go. He couldn't make this minority government work."
Fisher also pointed to McGuinty's low popularity in recent polls and a disappointing third-place finish to the NDP in a September byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo.
Successor up in the air
Names spoken of as potential leadership candidates to replace McGuinty include Housing Minister Kathleen Wynne, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, former cabinet minister George Smitherman, and Energy Minister Chris Bentley, who has been the focus of the opposition attacks and original contempt motion over the cancelled gas plants.
Fisher said the Ontario Liberals don't have an automatic choice for a successor.
"There is no Justin Trudeau waiting in the Liberal backbenches at Queen's Park to take over the party and revitalize it."
Speaking on CBC News Network on Tuesday, Fisher also said he's doubtful McGuinty has plans to make a run at the federal Liberal leadership.
"I think federal Liberals are looking for a quick fix and Dalton McGuinty is not a quick fix," said Fisher.
Decision to adjourn legislature criticized
Both Ontario opposition parties were also critical of McGuinty’s decision to adjourn the legislature.
With the legislature now prorogued, the scheduled finance committee hearings into the gas plant cancellations and all other legislative business will be cancelled. There won't be any committees either because the three parties have been unable to agree on their makeup under a minority government.
CBC provincial affairs reporter Mike Crawley said Tuesday that by quitting and shutting down the legislature, McGuinty is taking heat away from the Liberals.
"Effectively what Dalton McGuinty has done in Ontario is bought some time for his party," said Crawley. "It's going to put a lot of distance between some of the scandals ... and the new leader, whoever he or she is."
Pollster Nik Nanos, the president and CEO of Nanos Research, said the prorogation will hit opposition parties the hardest.
"It’s not really a surprise that they’re in a furor because by proroguing, the Liberals basically take away the platform that the opposition parties have to attack the McGuinty government and the Liberals in Ontario, Nanos told CBC News Network on Tuesday.
The public may not like decision to prorogue the legislature, Nanos said, but the Liberals need to be more concerned about who they will choose to succeed the outgoing premier.
"I can’t see prorogation as a big vote driver," he said.