Ontario finance minister 'mulling' bid to replace McGuinty

Ontario's deputy premier and finance minister is giving careful thought to the idea of running for the leadership of the Ontario Liberals, as party officials meet to decide when they will hold a leadership convention to replace outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

McGuinty, one of the longest-serving Ontario Premiers, resigned as Liberal leader Monday evening but not before proroguing the provincial legislature.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan told host Evan Solomon he is considering a run for the provincial Liberal leadership bid but that "it's a very difficult choice."

Duncan said he has received support from his colleagues and other party faithful in the province and while he hasn't come to a decision yet he is indeed "mulling it over."

Duncan represents the Ontario riding of Windsor–Tecumseh and was first elected to the Ontario legislature in 1995. He has been serving as finance minister since 2005 and as deputy premier since Oct. 2011.

On Monday, Duncan presented a fall economic update showing that Ontario's deficit had dropped slightly since he presented the spring budget. Duncan said the province's deficit currently stands at $14.4 billion, down from $15.3 billion.

However, a key assumption in Duncan's figures is that the government would get its wage-freeze bill passed and would not have to hike pay for public employees.

With McGuinty's decision to prorogue the legislature, however, obtaining a wage freeze is far from certain.

The decision to shut down the legislature has drawn heavy criticism from opposition leaders and has left some former Ontario Liberals feeling uneasy with the move.

On Wednesday, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne said "there's a discomfort, obviously, in having the legislature shut," adding that "nobody wanted to do that, it's not our first choice."

But Duncan said "it was absolutely the right thing to do."

"There's a very real possibility that the opposition could defeat the government while the governing party is in the midst of a leadership and might be inclined to do that," Duncan said.

Proroguing was necessary to prevent the minority Liberal government from falling, he said, and the legislature had largely ground to a halt.

"I think everybody needed a time out," Duncan said. "Nothing was getting done."

When asked if this was an abuse of prorogation, Duncan said "not at all," adding that there are plenty of opportunities to question the government "in or out of the House."

But both the provincial NDP and the Progressive Conservatives have vowed to keep this issue in the public spotlight.

On Friday, the NDP announced a campaign to recall the Ontario Legislature and get Members of the Provincial Parliament (MPPs) back to work by calling on the public to phone and email McGuinty directly.

McGuinty's resignation has fuelled speculation that he intends to run in the federal Liberal leadership race, which officially gets underway on Nov.14. But his right-hand man said he believes McGuinty isn't going to run federally.

"My instinct tells me he is not, but he's not told me that," Duncan said.

According to Duncan, the two men had a private meeting before McGuinty made his announcement Monday evening but the subject of running for the federal Liberals "did not come up."

However, the minister said he did ask McGuinty about it "a year or so ago, prior to the last election, but it was nothing serious."

Duncan said "I asked him, and at the time, I got the impression that he wasn't interested in it."

The finance minister said if McGuinty were to throw his hat in the federal Liberal leadership race he would "support him" and that if he were to ask him for his advice, Duncan would tell McGuinty it's "a long commitment in a very difficult job."

Also in an interview airing on The House, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was asked about the state of Ontario's finances given the economic updated that Duncan presented on Monday.

"The fundamentals never change — Ontario has some very serious deficit and debt problems," Flaherty said. "So does Quebec. So does New Brunswick. We have several provinces in Canada that need to address their [fiscal] situations."

When asked about the provinces' complaint that Ottawa is downloading costs onto their backs, Flaherty said: "It's just the opposite actually. Our transfers to the provinces are larger than they have ever been."

Duncan told Solomon that Flaherty shouldn't be lecturing Ontario as he has "a pretty big deficit and debt of his own. He missed his target for this year."

In the case of equalization, Duncan said Flaherty is "playing a little fast and loose with the numbers."

"As the finance minister in Canada who has run, I think the largest deficits in history, he ought not to be hectoring others. He was lucky that he inherited a balanced budget, we didn't have that luxury. The government he [Flaherty] was part of left us a deficit," Duncan said.

Flaherty served as finance minister and deputy premier under the government of Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

Duncan added that had Flaherty "not cut the GST by two points, he might not have had a deficit. Or it would have been a fraction of what it was. I think history will look upon that as one of the most boneheaded decisions of all time."

Flaherty said he spoke to the provincial finance ministers in July and told them "we're all in this together, and we better realize that you can't have a provincial situation that is weak and have it ignored."