The end of a po­lit­i­cal era

Long­time Lon­don North Cen­tre MPP Deb Matthews does not plan to seek re-elec­tion next year

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - OPINION - HANK DANISZEWSKI AND DAN BROWN

When she turned the page to the next chap­ter of her life Fri­day, Deb Matthews closed the book on an ex­tra­or­di­nary story of pol­i­tics and power in an ex­tended Lon­don fam­ily that goes back decades, even fur­ther, and in­ter­sects with some of the big­gest mo­ments in Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

On­tario’s deputy pre­mier, Matthews says she won’t be a can­di­date in the next On­tario elec­tion, end­ing a 14-year run in Lon­don North Cen­tre that took her to the No. 2 job at Queen’s Park af­ter a po­lit­i­cal life that be­gan by help­ing a for­mer pre­mier in her ex­tended fam­ily to win his first seat. Along the way, Matthews – who will re­main an MPP un­til the ex­pected June elec­tion, and co-chair the Lib­eral cam­paign – held some of the big­gest cab­i­net posts in the govern­ment, in­clud­ing as min­is­ter of health and as the prov­ince’s first min­is­ter in charge of a trea­sury board to keep a lid on spend­ing.

But say­ing she’s “done my tour of duty,” Matthews – now the prov­ince’s ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter – was ad­manant her de­par­ture isn’t a sig­nal that Pre­mier Kath­leen Wynne, a close ally, will step down be­fore the next elec­tion. She’s also con­fi­dent in the Lib­er­als’re­elec­tion chances, she in­sists.

“I’m not jump­ing ship, I’m chang­ing roles,” said the 63-year-old, a grand­mother who, on Twit­ter on Fri­day, said she “took a great leap into pub­lic life” 15 years ago but now wants to “ex­plore op­por­tu­ni­ties for the next chap­ter in life” – what, she’s not sure yet – af­ter the elec­tion.

Short-term, Matthews’ de­ci­sion com­pletely changes the land­scape in Lon­don North Cen­tre, where for­mer Lon­don MP Su­san Truppe is lined up to run for the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives and city coun­cil­lor Tanya Park for the New Democrats. The rid­ing has been a Lib­eral bas­tion in a sea of PC and NDP seats. But call­ing it quits now also brings to an ap­par­ent end an al­most Kennedy-es­que fam­ily story of pol­i­tics in Lon­don, one that ex­tends be­yond Lib­eral cir­cles into the found­ing of what would be­come the New Demo­cratic Party and which also crosses aisles to the old Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party.

Matthews’ fa­ther, con­struc­tion mag­nate Don Matthews, was a pres­i­dent of the fed­eral PCs.

Her brothers-in-law – David, Tim and Jim Peter­son – would be­come, re­spec­tively, a Lib­eral pre­mier, one who snapped a 42-year Tory reign in On­tario with her help, an MPP for not one but two par­ties, Lib­eral and PC, and a Lib­eral back­bencher in Ot­tawa who be­gan while Pierre Trudeau was prime min­is­ter.

The late Clarence and Marie Peter­son, par­ents of the three brothers-in-law, and the lat­ter a worka­holic phi­lan­thropist in Lon­don un­til the day she died, were movers and shak­ers in their own right.

A child of the De­pres­sion in dust­bowl Saskatchewan, Clarence Peter­son­wa­saw­it­nesstothe­birthof the Co-op­er­a­tive Com­mon­wealth Fed­er­a­tion, fore­run­ner to the mod­ern NDP, and help to draft the 1933 Regina Man­i­festo that set the fu­ture of what would be­come one of Canada’s Big Three par­ties in mo­tion.

He also tan­gled with a fu­ture Tory pre­mier, John Ro­barts of Lon­don, in a failed elec­tion bid in the mid-1950s but had the ul­ti­mate re­venge when son David be­came Lib­eral pre­mier three decades later. All the Peter­son kids were raised with com­mu­nity ser­vice in mind.

It was the mar­riage of Matthews sis­ter, Shel­ley, an ac­tor, to David Peter­son that ex­tended Matthews’ fam­ily and her pol­i­tics. Be­fore long, she was help­ing to make cam­paign signs for her brother-in-law in what was then Lon­don Cen­tre. She would go on to be­come in­stru­men­tal in cam­paigns, not just at the rid­ing level but provincewide dur­ing the Peter­son govern­ment’s five-year run, in­clud­ing its ear­ly­elec­tion gam­ble in 1990 that back­fired with de­feat.

Peter­son, reached Fri­day at his Cale­don farm, had noth­ing but praise for Matthews and her abil­ity.

“She was a peace­maker and (was) al­ways loved by ev­ery­body – she doesn’t get you mad,” he said, adding: “This isn’t just a shoeshine and a smile: This is com­bined with a huge brain.”

Peter­son cred­ited his sis­ter-in­law for help­ing get to the cor­ri­dors of power.

“She’s one of the prin­ci­pal rea­sons I got the (Lib­eral) nom­i­na­tion in 1975,” he said of his first rid­ing win. “We painted all the signs for my nom­i­na­tion in the liv­ing room. We didn’t know what we were do­ing.”

The Peter­son years at Queen’s Park took in high drama, in­clud­ing the failed Meech Lake ac­cord when Peter­son was dubbed “Cap­tain Canada” for try­ing to bring a sep­a­ratist-minded Que­bec into the con­sti­tu­tional fold.

Af­ter Peter­son’s fall from grace, Matthews stuck to the Lib­eral back room, ris­ing to be­come the party’s On­tario pres­i­dent.

In 2003, the party was headed by Dal­ton McGuinty, who’d been the only new Lib­eral elected dur­ing Peter­son’s 1990 loss to Bob Rae’s NDP. Matthews took the plunge into ac­tive pol­i­tics, knock­ing off 15-year PC MPP Dianne Cun­ning­ham to win her Lon­don seat.

No stranger to con­tro­versy as a politi­cian, Matthews had to put out fires she in­her­ited as health min­is­ter as scan­dals swirled over the prov­ince’s Ornge air am­bu­lance ser­vice and its costly at­tempts to cre­ate an elec­tronic health sys­tem to link pa­tient records and the na­tion’s largest health-care sys­tem.

Af­ter McGuinty abruptly re­signed as pre­mier af­ter nine years, as an­other scan­dal blew up over govern­ment spend­ing to can­cel two gas plants be­fore an elec­tion, Matthews backed Wynne in the 2013 party lead­er­ship con­test

that fol­lowed.

In a state­ment Thurs­day, Wynne said she was “priv­i­leged to have (Matthews) by her side.”

Matthews ac­knowl­edged the PCS and NDP will cast her de­ci­sion to go as a party loy­al­ist jump­ing a sink­ing ship. Sev­eral prom­i­nent Lib­er­als have an­nounced they won’t run again, in­clud­ing long-serv­ing min­is­ter Liz San­dals who joined Matthews in that move Fri­day.

The Lib­er­als have strug­gled in the polls, weighed down by con­tro­ver­sies and a decade of red-ink spend­ing be­fore fi­nally bal­anc­ing the bud­get this year.

Veteran Queen’s Park watcher Nel­son Wise­man, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Toronto, said it’s not supris­ing Matthews would step aside af­ter 14 years or time the de­ci­sion now: Party or­ga­niz­ers need to know well in ad­vance of an elec­tion.

He noted that for a long-serv­ing politi­cian, Matthews never served a day in op­po­si­tion.

“Be­ing in op­po­si­tion is not as ex­cit­ing as be­ing in cab­i­net and be­ing deputy pre­mier,” he said.

As for Matthews’ role co-chair­ing the next Lib­eral cam­paign, that may just be op­tics, Wise­man said.

“It does look like you’re not de­sert­ing the Lib­eral ship if your co-chair­ing the next cam­paign.”

Wise­man noted that Matthews vic­tory mar­gin on her rid­ing home turf had dropped in the last two elec­tions.

“It will be an in­ter­est­ing three­way race next time, and I sus­pect the Lib­er­als will lose it.”

In the end, Peter­son said, tim­ing when to leave the “grind” of a top po­lit­i­cal job is both dif­fi­cult and per­sonal.

“(But) Deb­bie could do any­thing,” he said. “She’s got an­other ca­reer in her do­ing some­thing.”

MIKE HENSEN/POSTMEDIA NET­WORK

Lon­don North Cen­tre MPP Deb Matthews has an­nounced she wonâÄôt be seek­ing re-elec­tion in next yearâÄôs pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

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