Ottawa Citizen

McGuinty vows to lead Liberals in next election

Premier has strong support from caucus

- BY LEE GREENBERG

Dogged in his early years by colleagues who plotted against him, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty yesterday threw cold water on the hopes of any potential rivals when he pledged to remain Liberal leader through the next provincial election.

The pledge comes ahead of a leadership vote in Ottawa this weekend in which Mr. McGuinty is expected to achieve well above 90-per-cent support.

The 52-year-old father of four answered in simple, one-word sentences when asked yesterday if he would stay on through 2011.

“Yes,” he said several times, before deadpannin­g: “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

For his more ambitious colleagues, the answer is unclear.

Veteran Queen’s Park observer David Docherty said despite winning a historic second consecutiv­e majority just nine months ago (the first time an Ontario Liberal leader had achieved such a feat in 70 years), Mr. McGuinty is currently in an awkward position.

He enjoys a firm, unshakable grip on his party’s top job at the same time he’s facing the questions that inevitably arise after holding the position for more than a decade.

“On the one hand, he’s unassailab­le,” said Mr. Docherty, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “On the other hand, if he decides to go for a third term, people will say that’s going to be his last and contenders will start to pop up.”

Mr. Docherty listed three provincial cabinet ministers — Sandra Pupatello, Dwight Duncan and Michael Bryant — as obvious potential leadership contenders, and he said more could follow if federal MPs see an opportunit­y at Queen’s Park.

Mr. McGuinty, who has tightened his grip on caucus recently, acknowledg­ed his potential successors yesterday, hinting that the best way to hold them at bay is to keep them happy.

“I’ve got a lot of talent and I’ve got a strong team,” he told reporters. “So one of the responsibi­lities I have is to make sure people are feeling engaged, and that they’re making a difference, and that their talents are being utilized.”

Despite a weakening economy, the McGuinty-led Liberals are seen to be in a strong position in Ontario. They have weathered the effects of a major tax hike (that broke a key 2003 election promise), are largely scandal-free and face a divided opposition in the legislatur­e.

Mr. McGuinty himself has also overcome criticism about his distant leadership style and interventi­onist, nanny-state policies, which include banning pit bulls, junk food in cafeterias, lawn pesticides and smoking in cars with children.

The biggest risk for Liberals now, Mr. Docherty said, is appearing arrogant or complacent. A decision by former premier Ernie Eves to break with tradition and deliver the budget outside the legislatur­e is a prime example, he said.

Mr. McGuinty said he’ll warn against complacenc­y this weekend. “The real reason we’re celebratin­g is we’ve been given the responsibi­lity to serve Ontarians,” he said, referring to the key message.

The Ontario Liberal party’s constituti­on calls for a leadership review vote following each general election.

About 1,000 delegates attending the party’s three-day annual general meeting will answer the question, “Do you wish for the Ontario Liberal party to have a leadership convention?”

In 1999, after leading his party to a disappoint­ing loss, Mr. McGuinty garnered 81 per cent support. Nearly five years later, he received a 92-per-cent endorsemen­t.

That number should be even higher when the results are announced tomorrow, insiders say.

“He’s led us to two successive majority government­s and he should lead us for the third time,” said Health Minister George Smitherman.

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