Dalton McGuinty’s resignation leaves much unresolved, including his future

For someone who worked hard to be liked, he departs under a cloud

Chris Young

If Halloween had been any closer, they might have thought they’d been pranked. The 53 Liberal MPPs had been summoned to a hastily assembled caucus meeting at a stuffy room in Toronto’s Queen’s Park legislature. It was odd for a Monday evening; odder still given the gaggle of reporters who’d been allowed through the doors. But nothing else about the gathering seemed out of the ordinary. Premier Dalton McGuinty arrived in shirtsleeves, as is his wont, and even the presence of his wife, Terri, strategically seated near the front, wasn’t enough to signal the weight of the news to come.

Then, the bombshell: leaning against the dais, McGuinty announced he was resigning from office as soon as the party could select a new leader, ending a nine-year run as Ontario premier and more than decade and a half at the helm of his party. And more controversially, he had prorogued the legislative session, thereby keeping his minority government alive until the handover was complete. At the back of the room, behind the TV cameras, Chris Morley, McGuinty’s former chief of staff, drank in the reaction. “In a place where there’s so much manufactured news,” he later told Maclean’s, “it was fun to watch something so important be broken in way that nobody knew.” Indeed, even those in the premier’s innermost circle had just a couple of days’ notice. On Saturday, McGuinty had dialed up a handful of close colleagues, including Morley—backers and advisers who had been with him since the beginning—to let them know his mind was made up. “When it’s time, it’s time. And I feel in my gut it’s time,” he told one political confidant who asked not to be named. “And I’m going to take some pleasure out of shocking everybody by doing it.” Morley describes the premier as resolute and firm: “He was a man who had reached his decision.”

That decision, however, remained a closely held secret up to the moment of revelation—a nod, say insiders, to a caucus that had remained loyal even after the party slipped into minority territory in last year’s election. Matt Maychak, who served as McGuinty’s director of communications from his days as Opposition leader until 2008, says his first inkling came from a reporter’s tweet about an “emergency” caucus meeting. The premier, he recalls, had been in an unusually reflective mood when they had played golf last spring on a public course. “He was talking about what he had accomplished in government, which is something he never does,” says Maychak. “And that’s when I knew he was at least pondering leaving.”

But it’s the manner of his departure—sudden, if not hasty—that has raised a lot of eyebrows. Was Canada’s longest-serving premier pushed out by his own party? Are there more embarrassing revelations to come about his government’s costly decision to cancel two unpopular power plants during the last election campaign? Or could he possibly be gearing up to take on Justin Trudeau for the leadership of the federal Liberals?

Whatever the case, as word of the resignation spread on Monday evening, current and former members of McGuinty’s staff converged on Queen’s Park, gathering in an ante room outside the premier’s Office. The group was relatively small—about 15 to 20 people—and the mood upbeat. After meeting with the media, McGuinty joined them for a single glass of scotch before heading home with Terri. “I think he drank about half of it,” says Morley, “which anyone who knows Dalton McGuinty would say was a wild night.” The party went on at a nearby pub until the wee hours of the morning. But the lights in the premier’s office were out by 9:30 p.m.

Some leaders go out with bangs, and some with whimpers, but only this improbable, slightly awkward finish would make a fitting coda for the rise and reign of Dalton McGuinty. He is a quiet, exceptionally studious man—aides grew accustomed to midnight phone calls alerting them to spelling errors deep in the appendices of his briefing books—who rarely displays emotion, let alone loses his temper. Those are useful qualifications in a lot of fields. Politics is not one of them.

His entry into the profession back in 1990 was more tragic than triumphant. After a long career as a professor of literature and entrepreneur, his father, Dalton Sr., had won election to Queen’s Park in 1987. But three years later, he suffered a fatal heart attack while shovelling snow off the back deck of his suburban Ottawa home. Following the funeral, a family meeting was convened to decide what to do with the open seat and it fell to Dalton Jr., the eldest boy among the 10 children, to pick up the torch. Other siblings like David—now a federal MP—had more of the old man’s partisan fire but their careers were too complicated, or kids too young. And so Dalton, an estate lawyer by trade, sought and won elected office at the age of 35.

In a Liberal caucus filled with heavy hitters from the recently defeated government of David Peterson, he drew little notice. And when he declared his intention to run for the leadership in 1996, few gave him a chance. But McGuinty had hatched a unique strategy—one that saw him put 60,000 km on the family’s Ford Windstar minivan as he criss-crossed the province trying to meet each and every one the 1,000 convention delegates. The pitch, reinforced by phone calls from his many brothers and sisters, was that he should be their second, or maybe even third choice. And when the leadership contest went to five ballots, those pledges of conditional support were enough to carry him past the heavily favoured Gerard Kennedy. Making his acceptance speech at 4:30 a.m. in Maple Leaf Gardens, McGuinty, hair Brylcreemed and perfectly parted, noted it was the latest he’d been up since he was a teenager.

The party may have been impressed with his strategic skills and vision, but voters were a harder sell. Yes, McGuinty seemed like a nice guy—married to his high school sweetheart, devoted father of four, a regular churchgoer—but if anything the arrow was too straight. (He rarely takes a drink, eschews tea or coffee, and has exercised daily since he was 18.) And on the hustings, the Liberal leader frequently seemed shy and uncomfortable. “He’s not wooden,” his wife Terri famously told a reporter. “He just has good posture.”

The nadir came in the 1999 election campaign when premier Mike Harris and his Tories launched a series of attack ads that painted McGuinty as an unproven and dangerous choice. “He’s just not up to the job,” was the simple and devastating tag line. The Conservatives won a second straight majority with 59 seats to the Liberals 35.

Warren Kinsella, a Liberal political strategist who worked closely with McGuinty says that’s when the transformation began. Staff changed, policy was beefed up, and the party became much more aggressive at fundraising. By the time the next election rolled around in 2003, the not-ready-for-prime-time player had morphed into Premier Dad—thanks in part to a visit to Chicago to study with David Axelrod, one of Barack Obama’s political gurus. “I think he became much more of a leader,” says Kinsella. “He learned that people want somebody to make the decisions, to take charge.”

Few had a better vantage point to watch the chrysalis than Howard Hampton, who became leader of the NDP the same year McGuinty won the Liberal helm, and waged three election campaigns against him before passing on the New Democrat banner in 2009. “Dalton grew in many ways,” says Hampton. “His public speaking ability grew. His capacity to deal with the media improved. And, as a politician of any longevity, you gain substance. You’re surrounded by issues every day, and you either become familiar and comfortable with them or you get out. There’s no doubt Dalton grew into all of those things.”

In 2003, voters rewarded that transformation with a commanding majority—72 seats to the combined Tory and NDP opposition total of 31. But the realities of power soon blunted the new premier’s optimism. Faced with a budget deficit that had ballooned to more than $5 billion by the time he took office, he quickly went back on his pledge not to raise taxes, unveiling a health care levy. Other vows, like a promise to shut down all of the province’s coal-fired power plants during his mandate, became moving targets, with closure dates pushed back with each passing year. Still he persevered, stringing together another majority win in 2007 and a minority in 2011 to become Ontario’s most electorally successful Liberal since Sir Oliver Mowat, who left office 116 years ago.

To his supporters, McGuinty will go down as the author of courageous programs that have left behind a smarter, healthier province: full-day kindergarten; a Green Belt protecting land outside Toronto from development; shorter waiting lists for medical treatment.

Why, then, the sense that he’s leaving under a cloud? “Dalton McQuitty,” blared the tabloid Toronto Sun the morning after the premier’s resignation announcement. “The Ontario Liberal party does indeed need new leadership,” wrote Matt Gurney, the National Post’s acerbic columnist, “but only because of how badly the current leadership has made a hash of things.” To these critics, emerging speculation that McGuinty’s sudden departure is prelude to a run at the leadership of the federal Liberal party is at best risible.

Heading up their list of complaints: a fiscal record that has seen Ontario go from being the country’s economic engine to a have-not province reliant on federal transfers, with a budget deficit almost as large as that of California. There were mitigating factors, most notably the recession that gripped the U.S., the province’s primary trading partner, and a Canadian dollar that has been on the rise since he took office. And McGuinty has made efforts to balance the books—pushing through a series of tax cuts that took Ontario’s corporate taxes from some of the highest in the world to some of the most competitive, as well as tax changes. “They did sell the HST to Ontarians,” adds Glen Hodgson, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada. “They went from a majority to a minority, but they’re one of the few governments that got re-elected having put in place what was clearly an unpopular tax.”

But on the other side of the ledger lies McGuinty’s inability to rein in spending increases that have expanded virtually every sector of government. Used to the good times, the Liberals never really adjusted when the economy took a nosedive in 2008.

“This is a government that has not been very effective at saying no,” says Queen’s University political scientist Cathy Brock. “Dalton McGuinty is the type of premier who wants to please people. He doesn’t want disharmony, so he finds it easier to expand than to contract programs.”

From 2006, when the government posted a modest surplus of $300 million, to the $15 billion deficit the province faces today, Liberal budgets have increased an average of seven per cent a year. The public sector grew by 200,000 workers, teachers saw generous wage increases, while health care spending alone has risen by eight per cent a year. And those unions responded in kind, donating generously to the Liberal’s election war chests.

McGuinty definitely had a plan to deal with things like public education, but it wasn’t so clear he had a handle on the bigger economic picture. By 2008, the premier, who once campaigned to scrap the system of federal equalization payments—arguing that the federal government used Ontario as a cash machine to siphon $23 billion from provincial coffers — found himself on the receiving end of $347 million in federal transfers. And his reaction to the economic crisis that decimated the province’s manufacturing sector was stuttering at best. His answer to shuttered factories and rising unemployment was a controversial program to transition Ontario into a green economy with a program that quickly came under fire for hefty subsidies to renewable energy projects and a sole-sourced $7-billion contract with Korea’s Samsung to build wind turbines. “It was never a comprehensive vision. They never really put all the sectors together,” says an economist who worked closely with the government. “[If they did] we might have stood in 2012 with a clearer idea of what needs to be done to succeed.”

And in the end, it was his government’s insistence on pushing large-scale green energy projects into rural communities—while cancelling them in urban Mississauga—that cost him his majority government. Seven of the seats the Liberals lost in last year’s election came in ridings where residents were opposed to local green-energy projects, including the seat held by environment minister John Wilkinson.

Then this summer, facing a minority parliament and running out of options to rein in spending, McGuinty swapped the goodwill he had built up with the public sector, through years of generous contract negotiations, for a hard-line stance on unions. He subtly accused teachers of being greedy by banking sick days for years, money he said the province needed to pay for its new all-day kindergarten program. “We have to convey to our partners in no uncertain terms that we have no new money,” he said in August.

Yet McGuinty’s legacy as premier is inextricably tied up in that habit of rarely shying away from tough choices, argues Gerry Butts, his former principal secretary. “I remember him telling us a story about an old Irish relative of his who, when he was a boy and afraid to climb a wall, used to throw his cap over it first because he knew he couldn’t come home without it. And that’s what Dalton did on several occasions on big issues over his career—he’s always gone to get the hat.”

All of which leaves those questions about McGuinty’s departure unanswered. By proroguing the legislature, opponents note, the premier derailed the work of a finance committee about to sift through long-awaited documents on the gas plant deals. And it was increasingly clear that he chafed under the constraints of minority power. Friends and insiders say he was irked when the Progressive Conservatives refused to support his proposal to freeze public sector wages as a way to restore the province to fiscal health. “I think he found the psychological transition difficult,” adds Henry Jacek, a McMaster University political scientist. “I think he got used to running a government with a majority.”

That doesn’t bode well for an increasingly vocal circle who would draft McGuinty into the federal Liberal leadership contest. National elections, after all, have been just as prone recently as provincial ones to minority outcomes.

Yet faith among Liberals in the unlikely premier with the awkward manner apparently hasn’t waned. “In the last day, a number of folks have made it clear they’d support his candidacy [for the federal leadership], whether from an organizational or funding perspective,” says Morley, one among a handful of confidants likely to manage a McGuinty campaign. “I think he’d bring a lot to the race.” Hard to believe, perhaps, for many Ontarians. But surely not outside the realm of possibility for a politician who has made a career of confounding expectations.

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