With change in chief-of-staff, looks like McGuinty intends to stay

The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty delivers a speech during the gathering of Ontario's municipal leaders in Toronto on Feb. 27, 2012. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail/Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

Since last fall’s provincial election, speculation about Dalton McGuinty’s future has been one of the hotter topics of conversation around Queen’s Park.

Having led the Ontario Liberal Party since 1996 – a time when Jean Chrétien was in his first term as prime minister, Bill Clinton had just won re-election as U.S. president, and dial-up Internet was considered a luxury – is Mr. McGuinty finally ready to hand over the reins to someone else?

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Based on the news out of the Premier’s Office on Thursday, it looks like we have our answer. The announcement that David Livingston will replace chief-of-staff Chris Morley suggests Mr. McGuinty has no intention of going any time soon. On the contrary, he’s evidently determined to open yet another chapter in his improbably long premiership.

It’s doubtful that Mr. Morley, who was set to depart last fall but stuck around to help steer the Liberals through the early stages of minority government, would have bothered to leave now if he thought his boss would be around only a few more months. And it’s even more unlikely that Mr. Livingston, a former executive vice-president at TD Bank, would have left his current role as president and CEO of Infrastructure Ontario to serve as a short-term solution for a lame-duck premier.

Unless the Liberals reclaim their majority through a coming by-election, there’s only so much job security that anyone in government can have. But Mr. Livingston has been brought on board with a mandate to think relatively long-term – about the implementation of this year’s budget and the development of the next one, rather than the day-to-day machinations of minority government.

That’s a very different role from the one his predecessor has filled. The 35-year-old Mr. Morley – who has spent almost his entire adult life working for Mr. McGuinty, starting as an intern – has earned positive reviews because of his political instincts, his communication savvy and his adeptness at relating to other staff. But he doesn’t have the same real-world experience as Mr. Livingston.

Just because Mr. Livingston enters the job with much greater stature than anyone who has previously filled it for Mr. McGuinty, though, doesn’t mean he’s going to have an easy time putting it to good use.

Those familiar with the inner workings of the Premier’s Office suggest the balance between policy and politics – the tension between people primarily concerned with running the government and those worried about winning the next election – has recently been shifting toward the latter.

Mr. Livingston seems to have been brought in to ensure that doesn’t happen, and if anything to tilt it the other way. But he wouldn’t be the first chief-of-staff to be sidelined by more savvy operators. And the fact remains that Don Guy, Mr. McGuinty’s hyper-political campaign manager (and former chief of staff), has the Premier’s ear as much as anyone else.

Give the Premier credit for not simply worrying about clinging to power a little longer, and actually trying to do something with it. But if Mr. Livingston isn’t able to assert himself quickly, renewal may finally prove beyond Mr. McGuinty’s grasp.