Ottawa Citizen

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.

- Steve Paikin is an­chor and se­nior ed­i­tor of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVO. (Theagenda.tvo.org)

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.

 ?? TYLER AN­DER­SON/POST­MEDIA NEWS ?? On­tario Pre­mier Dal­ton McGuinty sur­prised just about ev­ery­one when he an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion.
TYLER AN­DER­SON/POST­MEDIA NEWS On­tario Pre­mier Dal­ton McGuinty sur­prised just about ev­ery­one when he an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion.

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