On Friday, August 3, 2012, Premier Dalton McGuinty expressed greetings to mark the celebration of Ramadan at the International Muslims Organization of Toronto.
Credits: Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency
TORONTO - Handled properly, natural gas is a safe and relatively clean burning fuel. Handled improperly, it can blow up in your face and that's just the scenario opposition parties are hoping to lay out in a pair of upcoming byelections in Ontario.
Just how annoyed voters in Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan are over the $190-million price tag for relocating an unpopular gas-fired electricity plant in Mississauga, west of Toronto, could well shape the two races, expected to come in early fall.
Victories in both could restore the minority Liberals to majority status.
"Let's be honest - it's politics. We'll make sure it resonates at the door," Progressive Conservative energy critic Vic Fedeli said.
"We'll put the facts out there and let the people decide. It's just one of the pieces of the puzzle of mismanagement."
Tories have been salivating for the moment the government would have to come clean on the cost of moving the plant ever since the abrupt, mid-election campaign announcement Sept. 24 - less than two weeks from election day. It's now even mentioned in the party's fundraising appeals to supporters.
Liberal unease with the move was obvious right away. Reporters covering the election weren't even told as the Grit candidate in Mississauga South Charles Sousa, joined by nearby colleagues Donna Cansfield, Laurel Broten and Dipika Damerla, announced the plant would no longer be built at the 4.5 hectare site not far from Sherway Gardens shopping mall.
The government struggled afterward to explain why the 280-megawatt plant once necessary to ensure power supply in the area could so suddenly be shelved.
And it only got worse in July when Energy Minister Chris Bentley finally released the cost of the deal to settle lawsuits with the plant's owner and set them up with a new site in Sarnia.
Bentley said that would set back taxpayers $180 million but neglected to mention an additional $10 million the Ontario Power Authority advanced to the plant's owner, something QMI Agency revealed a few days later.
"I knocked on doors in Waterloo a week ago," Fedeli said. "It came up and we're not surprised that it came up. Of all the scandals that go on, a billion dollars here and a billion dollars there, it's hard for people to really relate.
"They all understood $190 million payoff for nothing. Nothing - for zero. That was one time when I've really seen the hydro issue resonate at the door."
Fedeli said the gas plant is a shining example of Liberal indifference to hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
"It's the whole litany of mismanagement," he said. "The government just doesn't care about your money. They thought so little of it that they spent $190 million of it just to save a seat."
New Democrats are also enjoying banging on the gas plant drum.
"It makes people angry," NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns said. "It's very concrete and easy to understand - large amounts of public money thrown around for narrow, partisan advantage. It makes people very angry.
"It's simple and so clearly opportunistic and wasteful of public money, people get the story really quickly."
And Tabuns dismisses any suggestion the Liberals - who went on to handily win Mississauga South and the surrounding ridings - could have weathered the plant's critics and taken the region without killing the construction.
"From discussions I've had and all the observations I made during the election, they were in real trouble in those ridings," Tabuns said. "They would not have done this if they weren't in real political trouble. Whatever the calculation, whatever the reality, they made the decision based on saving the seats."
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty just shrugged when asked how his party would deal with opposition gas attacks when the votes are called.
"They'll use whatever they choose to use and we stand to be judged in these byelections as we are in general elections and we're prepared to defend any decisions we made," McGuinty said.
The residents of Mississauga-South who successfully fought off the gas plant after years of organizing do not relish the issue being used in the upcoming byelections as a political football, especially when it brings an implied taint of NIMBYism.
Scott Kletke, president of the Lakeview Ratepayer's Association, said the outcome of the election would likely have been the same regardless of the Liberals' decision to move the plant because Sousa was well known to oppose the project.
The Liberal MPP's results were virtually identical to the general election of 2007 when he was running against David Peterson's brother Tim, an incumbent who had switched from the Liberals to the Tories in part over his opposition to three gas plants planned for the area by the McGuinty government.
Peterson lost to Sousa despite being on the community's side on the gas plants issue.
Kletke, who noted he's not politically affiliated, said he's uncomfortable with opposition parties making political hay out of the plant when they would have done the same thing.
"I find it cynical," he said.
His group tried repeatedly to get the PC leadership on the record on this issue, Kletke said.
"Tim Hudak announced two days before the election that if his party was elected that they would cancel the plant," Kletke said, noting the moving costs would have been the same whichever party made the call.
But without the burden of actually being in government and defending decisions, both the Tories and the NDP can gloss over that fact, Anna Esselment, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Waterloo, said.
"That's the beauty of the opposition - any opposition. You can have plans and you can say things but you don't have to carry it," Esselment said.
She said she doubts the cancelled construction on its own will move voters in byelections far removed from where it was planned. But it may well help the opposition crystallize the narrative of Liberal profligacy.
"The Tories will try to weave it into a larger dialogue or message about government waste generally," she said. "It'll be a little about mismanagement, waste and irresponsible decisions."
The Liberals though have made the task tougher on their rivals by adding a second, unexpected byelection on top of the long-awaited race in Kitchener-Waterloo, Esselment said.
Greg Sorbara's retirement from his Vaughan seat announced Wednesday splits opposition resources and attention, she said.
It also points up a sharp contrast - the Kitchener race to replace popular PC stalwart Elizabeth Witmer is necessary because Witmer accepted the Liberals' offer of a job at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, shocking her party and putting Leader Hudak in an awkward position.
She's played little role in the party's byelection preparations since, despite her high standing in the riding.
Sorbara, on the other hand, stepped down as MPP to concentrate on Liberal election fortunes as party campaign and Ontario Liberal Fund chair and will be front and centre as his party picks a successor.
"The speculation could be maybe she doesn't like Tim Hudak," Esselment said. "It does point to a concern. It may not be a referendum on the government, which is the way most people frame it - byelections are always referendums on the government.
"In this case it may actually be a little bit of a referendum on Hudak."
For his part, Sorbara said he fully expects the opposition to use the gas plant as political fodder,
"It would be a little bit duplicitous for them to criticize the position at the same time as they support the position," Sorbara said, but doesn't believe that would stop them. "I'd be very surprised if that were the issue (of the campaign). I don't think it's going to be the big one... these are relatively minor issues in an environment where the major issue is coming to grips with the challenges both in health care and education and on both fronts the labour issues."
The Grits will ask the electorate in both ridings for an endorsement of their agenda to control teacher and doctor compensation to address costs in those areas, he said.
It's not about getting a new mandate.
"Actually, I compare them to spring training games in baseball," he said.
If voters ask about the timing of the gas plant decision - smack in the middle of the game, so to speak - then Sorbara points out that elections are a good time for parties to settle up with the constituents.
"It became an important political issue and substantive issue... And we realized that perhaps we had made a mistake there and it was in the best interest of that community, as the opposition parties agreed, that we not proceed with that," he said. "And that's what elections are about - to flush out issues and to have the will of the people supersede decisions, in this case, that have already been made."