The end of a political era
Longtime London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews does not plan to seek re-election next year
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
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.”
London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews has announced she wonâÄôt be seeking re-election in next yearâÄôs provincial election.