Key MPP leaves Tories for WSIB post

April 27, 2012 - All News

A political bombshell at Queen’s Park has inched Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals closer to a majority government and left Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives weakened by the loss of a key MPP.
Political veteran Elizabeth Witmer — a former deputy leader who is highly regarded across party lines at the legislature — stepped down Friday when McGuinty nominated her as the new chair of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board.
“Elizabeth Witmer is exceptionally qualified,” McGuinty said in a statement.
The surprise appointment leaves the Liberals at 52 seats — excluding Speaker Dave Levac — versus a combined 53 for the Progressive Conservatives and NDP, with Witmer’s Kitchener-Waterloo seat vacant until a byelection is held within the next six months.
Sources said McGuinty favours a “snap” byelection as the Liberal have a number of candidates lined up in hopes of catching rival parties flat-footed.
Regardless of whether the Liberals can win her riding and tread further into majority territory, the unexpected departure of a stalwart is a blow to Hudak.
He is facing dissent in the ranks over his strategy to not negotiate with the Liberals on the recent provincial budget, ceding the spotlight to New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath and her “tax-the-rich” plan.
Witmer, 65, a “red” Tory from the progressive wing of the party, had recently experienced difficulty getting fellow Tory MPPs to embrace gay-straight alliances as the legislature battles over anti-bullying legislation.
First elected to Queen’s Park in 1990 when the Tories placed third as the New Democrats came to power under Bob Rae, Witmer later served as labour, environment, education and health minister under premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves from 1995 to 2003.
Known for her crisis management skills and an ability to deflect criticism with a calm demeanor under pressure, Witmer was given the environment post after the Walkerton water tragedy that left seven dead.
Witmer, 65, is a former high school teacher born in The Netherlands. She was a trustee and chair of the Waterloo County Board of Education before entering provincial politics.
She ran for the party leadership in 2002 when Harris quit but finished fourth behind Ernie Eves, who took the helm of the party and lost the 2003 election to Premier Dalton McGuinty.
In the 2004 leadership race to replace Eves, Witmer backed the eventual winner, John Tory. She supported current deputy party leader and Whitby—Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott in the 2009 leadership contest won by Hudak.
Her appointment will prompt a byelection in Kitchener—Waterloo, part of fast-growing urban area where the Liberals lost an adjoining seat to the Conservatives in last fall’s vote.
A veteran Liberal said Kitchener—Waterloo is “very much a Witmer riding” but could be won back by the Grits.
“Remember, it was ours before with Herb Epp and the demographics are right,” the insider said.
Epp held the riding for 13 years before retiring from the legislature in 1990, when Witmer took the seat.
She won the riding with 43.7 per cent of the vote last October 6 as 21,665 supporters cast ballots for her. Placing second was Liberal Eric Davis with 36 per cent of the vote and 17,837 ballots — 3,828 votes behind. The NDP was a distant third.
However, Witmer’s son Scott, a Waterloo city councillor, is widely believed to have an interest in running for the seat to keep it in the family.
Witmer, the longest serving female MPP at Queen’s Park, is well-regarded by Liberals and Conservatives and her new role will be an easy sell for the government.
“This also gives us some political cover,” confided a Liberal, noting it could make patronage appointments more palatable.
But the biggest aspect to what another Liberal dubbed a “coup” was that it undermines Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
“Hudak’s caucus is unhappy, they feel left out — anyone can see that. Watch their body language in the house,” said the second Grit.
“Now, he’s losing his most prominent Red Tory, a proven commodity as a cabinet minister and a former leadership contender,” he said.
The Liberals have tried to woo Witmer off of the Tory benches for months.
After the Oct. 6 election — which resulted in 53 Liberals, 37 Tories, and 17 New Democrats in the 107-member minority legislature — the Liberals quietly asked her to run for speaker.
That would have left a 53-53 Liberal-opposition split, a de facto majority government.
But Witmer politely declined and alerted Hudak’s office immediately.
In the end Liberal MPP Dave Levac was elected speaker, meaning the Liberals have 52 in the house and the opposition 54.
— Torstar News Service