Dalton McGuinty wins again

Ontario’s unlikely premier now ranks among the most successful politicians of his generation

Twelve years ago, after an underwhelming first provincial campaign as Liberal leader, Dalton McGuinty’s future was in some doubt. The columnist in McGuinty’s hometown paper, the Ottawa Citizen, duly wondered if he was a lost cause.

“Should the Liberals keep Dalton McGuinty as leader? Now that the dust is starting to settle on his mediocre election campaign, it’s a question they are going to have to ask. The quick and easy answer is that there’s no one better on the horizon so Dalton’s the man. One can imagine the positive reception this idea receives among Tories. They’d like to see McGuinty keep the job until mandatory retirement age of 65. What better way to assure another 50-year Tory reign?”

Twelve years later, as fate would have it, the columnist took a leave from the Citizen to try politics as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the riding of Ottawa West-Nepean, ahead of an election the Tories seemed likely to win. But tonight, Randall Denley lost. And Dalton McGuinty won. Again.

This is not to pick on Denley. He was surely not alone in doubting McGuinty (is there anyone who hasn’t?) and he should only be commended for his honourable decision to stand for public office. This is only to demonstrate in the most ironic way possible what Dalton McGuinty—and this election in particular—has shown to be true. Namely that no one can really know anything for sure when democracy is involved.

McGuinty was, at the outset, his party’s fourth choice: finishing behind Gerard Kennedy, Joseph Cordiano and Dwight Duncan on the first ballot at the 1996 Liberal leadership convention. It took five ballots before a majority of party delegates could be convinced to side with him. Three years later, in that first campaign as Liberal leader, he was likened—by NDP leader Howard Hampton—to Norman Bates, the serial killer played by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

This was not obviously the makings of a three-term premier—this was something like the makings of Stéphane Dion—but here we are. After winning just four elections in all of the 20th century, the Ontario Liberals have won three in the last eight years. McGuinty is the first Ontario premier in 34 years to win a third-consecutive mandate. With a third election victory, he could reasonably claim to be the most successful politician of his generation.

This latest win is possibly—perhaps perfectly—the most improbable.

In June, McGuinty’s Liberals trailed the Progressive Conservatives in opinion polls by 11 percentage points. As recently as September, the PCs were ahead six points. What’s more the narratives were lined up against the incumbent. The era of big, activist government was over. The country was turning to the right, realizing that, as the Prime Minister puts it “Conservative values are Canadian values” and vice versa. The Liberal party was an anachronistic institution in the new politics of polarization. Dalton McGuinty, with his higher taxes and his wind farms, was not fit for this new world of Stephen Harper, Rob Ford and Tim Hudak.

Already, of course, there is a new conventional wisdom: that voters huddle around the familiar and fear change in times of economic uncertainty. And maybe there’s even something to that. But it’s also just a guess. (Two of the three parties made gains tonight, neither of them were the Liberals.)

It is probably worth noting that one of the more passionate fights of this campaign involved not the politicians or the voters, but the pollsters. Whatever the inherent limits of the science, polling has taken on a profound aura of meaning and predictive power in modern politics. Only now the pollsters couldn’t agree on how best to go about doing what they do and what value to place on the numbers they produce. Tomorrow morning, some will have to explain why their numbers are so different from the numbers that Ontario voters produced.

Ultimately, there is simply no way to know what a few million people will do when handed pencils and ballots or why they will necessarily do it. As Liberal strategists will be happy to say now: campaigns matter. As everyone should admit: no one really knows anything about something as complex and messy as democracy. Dalton McGuinty will wake up tomorrow, and for many more mornings to come, as the premier of Ontario. Four years from now it could be Tim Hudak. Or Andrea Horwath. Or maybe Dalton McGuinty will be celebrating his fourth-straight win. If we take anything away from this election, it might be that none of those scenarios should be considered inconceivable.