The end of an era
Dalton Mcguinty’s sudden resignation announcement was the biggest story in a wild year for Ontario politics, writes STEVE PAIKIN.
Dalton McGuinty had just completed his press conference, explaining why, after 22 years in public life, 16 of them as leader of the Ontario Liberals, and nine of them as premier of Ontario, he was stepping down.
As he walked jacketless from the Government Caucus Room toward his office at the opposite end of the second floor of the Ontario Parliament Buildings, he hugged his wife Terri and watched a phalanx of photographers blast him with their flashes.
After the flashes died down, I sidled up to the premier. “You surprised?” he asked me. “Nope,” I responded. “Absolutely shocked.”
“Good,” he said. “That’s what I was going for.”
The timing of Dalton McGuinty’s departure, announced at a hastily called caucus meeting this past October, was one of the best kept secrets in Ontario political history. Almost everyone seemed to be caught off guard.
Ever since McGuinty fell one seat short of a majority government in the October 2011 election, I was convinced he wouldn’t leave Ontario politics until he moved his party back into majority territory. It’s one of those things premiers want to do: if you can, you leave your party in the best possible state before handing over the keys to your successor.
After all, that’s what another premier, who elicits a lot of comparisons to McGuinty, did more than 30 years ago. After William Davis won a majority government in his first election in 1971, he lost it in the 1975 election and couldn’t get it back in the 1977 campaign either. But Davis stuck around, won his way back into the hearts of those who’d previously abandoned him, and captured a fourth consecutive election victory in 1981, returning his Tories to majority status.
I thought for sure McGuinty would try to do the same thing on his fourth try. He’d already made history by becoming the first Liberal premier in 128 years to three-peat. Why not go for four wins in a row, as Davis did?
Instead, he surprised us all by resigning, saying simply, “it’s time.”
Like any office holder who’s been around for a while, McGuinty can look back at his run with some pride and some shame. For eight years, the Liberals had a pretty solid story to tell when it came to education. They rebuilt positive relations with the teachers, whose morale had plummeted during the Mike Harris years (1995-2002). They implemented full-day kindergarten, reduced the dropout rate, invested more in post-secondary education than any government since John Robarts’ in the 1960s, and got test scores up so much, they’re now the highest in the English-speaking world.
McGuinty always said he wanted to be known as “The Education Premier,” a claim objective observers say he can make with considerable justification.
But as is so often the case in politics, memories are short. How ironic is it that today, Ontario’s teachers are spittin’ mad at this premier, taking his government to court over what they see as a draconian, antidemocratic piece of legislation with what they consider the Orwellian title, “Putting Students First”?
Eight years of giving the teachers almost everything they wanted have now been obscured by what’s transpired in McGuinty’s last year in office. Teachers insist it isn’t the two-year wage freeze that’s infuriating them. It’s the utter lack of respect they encountered from the premier, whose YouTube video back in February, outlining the concessions the government wanted, really hurt them.
And it’s not just in education that the government has accumulated barnacles. After years of taking pride in shutting down the province’s coal-fired generating stations and decisively planting Ontario’s flag as the greenest energy jurisdiction in North America, energy has also become another albatross. We learned this year that cancelling two gas-fired generating stations west of Toronto will cost taxpayers more than $230 million in penalties. And no one believes that’ll be the final tally.
But, as expensive as the education and energy files have become, they may actually not be as dangerous to McGuinty’s legacy as one other thing. And again, ironically, it seems the premier has taken a chapter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s playbook.
The year 2012 will go down in Ontario history as the year the premier prorogued the legislature, but not for the reasons premiers have traditionally done so. Back in the day, governments prorogued in order to reset or reboot their legislative agendas. But Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid the hangman’s noose, and McGuinty seems to have done it to shut down opposition attempts to find his energy minister in contempt of Parliament — something that hasn’t happened in more than 200 years of Ontario parliamentary history.
Having said all that, don’t hold any funerals for the governing Liberals just yet. McGuinty’s resignation and the ensuing leadership contest have given the Grits a seven-point bump in the polls. The party now features seven candidates vying for the leadership, all of them with cabinet experience, and some of them with the potential to make history. Ontario has never had a female premier. Odds are, that could change on Jan. 26, 2013 at Maple Leaf Gardens, if one of the two favourites, Sandra Pupatello or Kathleen Wynne, emerges victorious.
All 24 of Ontario’s premiers have descended from British/Scottish/Irish stock. Pupatello, the daughter of Italian immigrants, or Charles Sousa, the son of Portuguese immigrants, would be the first premier whose name ended in a vowel. (On second blush, we’ve already had a Blake, Hardy, Whitney, Drury, Henry, Kennedy, Rae, and McGuinty, but you get my meaning). Not to mention Indian-born Harinder Takhar, who signed up thousands of new party members and promises to surprise the skeptics at the convention.
Ontarians have had an openly gay deputy premier (George Smitherman) but never an openly gay premier. Should Wynne or Glen Murray win, that would be another first.
Let’s finish with a few words on the other two who would be premier: the PCs’ Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath.
After blowing an election that was his to win in 2011, Hudak spent the next year trying to find his voice. There’s evidence he has found it. Mixing serious policy proposals in several white papers with some good old-fashioned populist stuff (privatize the casinos, the lotteries, and the LCBO), Hudak seems to have hit his stride, having just turned 45 last month.
And in a departure for the NDP, the party seems content to ride the wave of popularity that its leader enjoys, while eschewing the dense policy documents for which New Democrats have been famous.
The key political question looking ahead to 2013 will be: Can the new Liberal leader and premier break a four decades long losing streak? Not since 1971 has the party in power successfully transferred power from the outgoing to the incoming premier, and had that new premier unambiguously win the next election (Bill Davis succeeded John Robarts and kept the Tory dynasty alive in ’71). Liberal party members are no doubt asking themselves who cannot only win the convention but also the election which is surely soon to follow.
If Dalton McGuinty’s successor can do that, there’ll be Champagne corks popping in Liberal campaign offices everywhere. But that 41-year jinx must also be making Hudak and Horwath, both of whom already have one election as leader under their belts, all the more eager to get back on the hustings.