‘Super-ministry’ to run infrastructure and nuclear energy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A sputtering economy and energy concerns have prompted Premier Dalton McGuinty to put George Smitherman in charge of Ontario's $26.3 billion nuclear expansion and its $60 billion upgrading of transit, roads and infrastructure.

McGuinty will announce a cabinet shuffle that will see veteran MPP Gerry Phillips step down as energy minister. Smitherman, now minister of health, will be taking his job and the former duties of Public Infrastructure Renewal Minister David Caplan, government sources say.

The dual role in an energy and infrastructure super-ministry will "shore up" both fields at a critical time, a senior government source told the Star, as opposition parties raise concerns about mounting layoffs and the ability to keep the lights on in Ontario.

"The most direct thing the government can do to grow the economy in the short term is to make sure infrastructure projects are being built," said the senior government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"George is a driver. He's a go-getter. He'll be the person to get those projects in the ground."

Smitherman likely got two portfolios because moving him to energy from health would have been seen as a demotion.

Caplan, whose post included overseeing public-private partnerships to build and renovate dozens of hospitals, takes over from Smitherman in health – a portfolio his mother, Elinor Caplan, held from 1987 to 1990 in the David Peterson government.

The Legislature rose for its summer recess so the new cabinet ministers won't face questions from the opposition until at least the end of September.

In Los Angeles on a trade trip, McGuinty confirmed to the Star he will be making a major announcement soon, but wouldn't tip his hand.

"I will always act to ensure that I have the right people in the right positions so we can best serve the people of Ontario," said the premier, who flies back to Toronto after four days in California.

Smitherman will bring his hard-driving style to the new "super-ministry" of energy and infrastructure as Ontario prepares to build more nuclear reactors at the Darlington power plant and bolster the economy with transit and other projects.

The high-level job swap has been brewing since mid-March when Phillips, 67, met with McGuinty and asked for a lighter workload within the next six months or so.

"We took some time to think what that meant in terms of a bigger or smaller shuffle," added the source.

"Dalton's instincts were, with the economy being a much more significant issue, we could take the opportunity to take one of our strongest ministers and create a bigger economic ministry and put him in charge."

McGuinty made the final decision as party members gathered for their annual general meeting in Ottawa.

Phillips announced that Darlington will get the new nuclear reactors. The next major decision – which company should build them – will be left to Smitherman, who is also deputy premier. A decision is to be made by year's end.

Smitherman has also been asked to "raise the profile" of conservation efforts and renewable energy, said another government source.

Smitherman, 44, has been health minister for five years, earning a reputation as a "change agent" for pushing through several major reforms, including tighter controls on hospital spending and establishing a system of measuring wait times for treatment.

"It's in the government's interest we put him somewhere where he can refresh himself and apply those energies all over again," said the senior government source.

Caplan, 43, has a head start as he prepares to become health minister. His wife, Leigh, is a nurse, and he has been overseeing dozens of hospital improvement projects.

While dealing with problems last year at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., which fell under his portfolio, Caplan ably weathered media and opposition criticism.

Smitherman's forceful style – NDP Leader Howard Hampton once branded him "Furious George" – may be what's needed to prevent a 20-year $26.3 billion nuclear plan from going off the rails as the government tries to meet a twice-broken promise to close coal-fired power plants, now pushed back to 2014.

Sources in the energy sector greeted news of Smitherman's new posting with trepidation. A senior industry source said there is wariness about the mercurial Smitherman because Phillips was always calm and measured in meetings. The insider said senior executives at Ontario Power Generation, Hydro One and Bruce Power were watching the shuffle closely.

Smitherman, who has been lining up support in a bid to run for mayor of Toronto in 2010, played coy when asked if he was getting a new job.

"Not to the best of my knowledge."

Caplan said much the same.

"No, I have not (heard), nor would I want to speculate about that."

At Queen's Park, sources said Phillips will remain in cabinet as an "éminence grise."

Phillips hinted to reporters that a change in his responsibilities was coming.

"It's a relatively heavy portfolio so I don't necessarily see myself in it longer term," he said.

Phillips was chair of the management board of cabinet until moving to energy after last October's election. In the Liberal government of former premier David Peterson, he was minister of citizenship and minister of labour.

In opposition, Phillips worked to get a public inquiry into the 1995 Ontario Provincial Police shooting death of native protester Dudley George at Ipperwash.

After the Liberals defeated the Progressive Conservatives in 2003, a judicial inquiry was called and its findings have become the template for the government's aboriginal affairs policies.


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