Two senior Ontario Liberal cabinet ministers. Two issues. Two objectives.

It was this week that Education Minister Laurel Broten and Health Minister Deb Matthews both made headlines for their hard-as-nails response to issues that are dogging their ministries and hence the government as a whole.

And for both women there is a lot at stake, now and into the future.

Broten has her hands full with public school teachers who are unhappy with the government’s ‘take it or leave it’ attitude about their new contracts.

The teachers are not at the bargaining table and Broten wants them back, even if that requires legislation and even if it means an end to the government's long-standing good relations with the teachers.

But her approach has not worked even after reaching an agreement with the province’s Catholic teachers who negotiated a new contract with a wage freeze.

So Broten has gone to plan B – telling public school boards across the province to settle with their teachers before classes are scheduled to resume in September, or else.

The 'or else' is a vague threat to legislate. The minister is unclear, perhaps even uncertain of the details. Broten says she won’t reveal them until the legislation is needed.

For their part, school boards have told Broten they need more time. They say trying to wrap things up before September can’t be done. Broten’s response? Just do it!


Education Minister Laurel Broten has not minced words in her dealings with the province's teachers. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

What is curious about the heavy-handed approach is that Broten claims the teachers have talked about walking out unless they get a new contract, one that is different from the one Catholic teachers accepted.

She claimed in a CBC Radio interview and in public statements this week the teachers are "deliberately dragging their feet" in talks.

And besides, says the minister, she’s got to protect all those kids and their voting parents from some sort of fall job action, even though the teachers have stated publicly they’ll be in their classrooms and not a picket line — with or without a new contract.

Political and personal issues

So what’s behind Broten’s approach?

Firstly, there are the two provincial byelections that are expected to be held this fall in the ridings of Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan.

The Liberals can’t afford to have unhappy teachers playing a role in those votes, where wins in both byelections will deliver them a majority government.

So if you can’t get the teachers' attention, get their employers'. Time will tell if that’ll work.

And there is the matter of Broten's political future at Queen’s Park.

Many see her as a Liberal leadership candidate, if and when Premier Dalton McGuinty’s had enough of his second floor office at Queen's Park.

McGuinty will leave and some think it could be sooner, rather than later. So Broten has to be prepared.

And a tough no-nonsense approach to dealing with education could be just the thing she needs, especially when it’s carefully crafted as a message that she only wants to protect school children.

As an aside, Broten’s current message includes a reference to being a parent herself and wanting her kids in school in September.

That sounds great, except that Broten’s children are being taught in the Catholic system and their teachers have settled.

The messy Ornge issue

Then, there is the embattled Matthews who spends more time defending herself, her ministry and the government than anyone else at Queen’s Park, and that includes the premier.

Matthews is also seen by many inside and outside the Liberal party as leadership material.

But the health files that keep her in the public eye litter the political landscape. From eHealth Ontario to Ornge air ambulance, Matthews has a lot on her plate and it’s mostly negative.


Like Broten, Health Minister Deb Matthews has come out swinging in defence of her government's actions during the Ornge affair. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

No matter how hard she tries, issues with both controversies keep cropping up, forcing her to respond, often with the same message over and over again.

But pleading that now-disgraced executives of the air ambulance service kept her and her ministry in the dark isn’t cutting it.

There's a nagging suspicion from critics that Matthews knows or knew more than she’s letting on.

So, this week she was presented with a perfect opportunity to – as the Liberals like to say – "change the channel" on Ornge.

'Pure nonsense'

She returned for a second time to testify before an all-party committee of MPPs now doing their own investigation into the troubled agency.

And while she began by saying — as she has said before — that more should have been done to control what she calls the "rogue" service, Matthews zeroed in on the former CEO at Ornge, Dr. Chris Mazza.

Matthews' assessment of his testimony before the committee? It was "pure nonsense."

And then she went on to tell the committee why, contrasting example after example of what Mazza said with what she sees as the truth.

To be sure, it was a hard line. But it's one that many Matthews backers say she needed to take for the sake of her future at Queen’s Park and her party’s more immediate future in looming byelections.

Liberal insiders say the Ornge issue has no traction with the voting public.

They say by the time Matthews moves to become Ontario’s first woman premier, it’ll all be forgotten.

But just in case it isn’t, Matthews has laid out a clear strategy. She claims to have acted to correct the problems at Ornge and the clear misspending of taxpayer’s money.

And, along the way, she tried to discredit the very man her party was so cosy with at one time. That was a time when Matthews wasn’t health minister and Mazza was able to get 15 minutes alone with the premier at a party fundraiser to tell him what he was doing at Ornge.

The clock is ticking on a Liberal leadership change. Both Matthews and Broten know that.

Fighting teachers and health issues are only a warm up for the fight ahead.