After leading the Ontario Liberal party for sixteen years, and as Premier for the last nine, Dalton McGuinty has greatly exceeded expectations. Though he lost the election in 1999 to the ferocious Mike Harris Ontario PC attack machine, one that derisively referred to him as the man who “wasn’t up to the job”, he swept to power in 2003 and 2007 with decisive majority governments. McGuinty was victorious again with a large minority just last year, when the political winds had been originally decisively stacked against him.
Dalton McGuinty leaves office with a mixed record as premier of Ontario. To his credit, he displayed grace, fundamental civility, and a desire to lead in the interest of all Ontarians, especially after the acrimonious Mike Harris years. He demonstrated a desire to strike a balance between a strong economy, accessible healthcare, a world class early education, and a cleaner environment.
His greatest failure as a leader also stemmed from his overly congenial nature, in that he seemed too keen to please everyone, and just had a hard time saying no. The political winds of change ushering in his era for a more collaborative approach after the tumultuous Harris-Eves years, had been supplanted by economic uncertainty and a declining manufacturing base. These challenges, aggravated by the ongoing stench of scandal, were those McGuinty lacked the resolve to tackle with gusto.
The political landscape was very different when Dalton McGuinty swept to power in 2003. Back then, changing of the political guard at Queen’s Park was welcome by many. Though his predecessor, Ernie Eves, tried to project a more moderate face to Ontario after the pugnacious tenure of the Harris government, Ontarians were tiring of the politics of polarization. Whereas tax cuts and economic competitiveness were the order of the late nineties, after the severe economic recession underpinning the tenure of the Bob Rae led NDP, a renewed focus on healthcare and education were a priority again in 2003, a time when economic fundamentals were sound.
Dalton McGuinty’s emphasis on education at the time was well received, especially after some neglect during the Harris-Eves years. There is no greater social good than an education system enabling our children to succeed and flourish as adults in an increasingly globally interdependent economy. It is through a vibrant education system that socio-economic barriers are broken and upward mobility into the middle class becomes possible.
But some of the McGuinty government’s priorities in education seemed questionable. Ontario’s fixation with small class sizes seemed a bit excessive. According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, “all primary classes have 23 students or fewer” and “90.6% have 20 or fewer.” (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/cst) The rationale for reducing class sizes for primary students is that “students in smaller classes get more attention, do better and are more likely to succeed in high school and beyond.” While an argument can be made for smaller class sizes, should it be a priority when evidence for its necessity seems inconclusive at best? There are many factors which contribute to quality interactions between pupils and their teachers, and to fixate on class size to this extent is excessive. This decision has also exacerbated the deficit and long-term relations with the teachers, especially when such stark financial realities would later come home to roost.
Another McGuinty fixation was the zealous pursuit of full day kindergarten, at a cost of $1.5 billion. To date, evidence of its efficacy is mixed. On the one hand, “parents of full day senior kindergarten students reported more positive assessments of their children’s social skills, speech and muscle development”. But Doretta Wilson, who is the executive director of a Society for Quality Education “said the program’s price tag can’t be satisfied by short term gains, especially given the economic climate.” (Kate Hammer, “All-day kindergarten gets high marks in Ontario”, Globe and Mail, March 20, 2012)
The aforementioned economic climate and ailing manufacturing sector were critical challenges gripping Ontario and neglected by this government. To be sure, this government did introduce business friendly measures in acting to reduce corporate income tax rates and in phasing out the job killing capital tax. The global economic slowdown and protracted challenges in the United States, as well as the higher Canadian dollar undermining the competitiveness of our exports, are not the blunder of the McGuinty government.
Unfortunately, McGuinty leaves Ontario’s economy in far worse shape than when he inherited it. As Kelly McParland astutely notes, “the manufacturing base has eroded and the province that was once considered the mighty engine of Canadian prosperity now pockets over $3 billion in equalization payments, a “have not” province that needs outside help just to get by.” (Kelly McParland, “McGuinty quits after nine years as premier, leaving his party to peer over the edge”, National Post, Full Comment, October 15, 2012) This stark reality comes on top of a “$14.4 billion deficit” to which Dwight Duncan owned up to just hours before McGuinty’s resignation.
It was in his latest confrontation with the teachers stemming from his stern decision to rein in the deficit that McGuinty overplayed his hand, and sowed the seeds of his political demise. It was courageous for him to somewhat reverse what had often become too cozy a relationship with public sector unions such as the Working Families Coalition, who made him a beneficiary of their ad campaign against the Ontario PC party.
Indeed, while a wage freeze for teachers and public sector workers was arguably in order given the financial landscape, this government’s maneuver to impose contracts and strip unions of their collective bargaining rights was tantamount to a declaration of war, especially with these most previous stalwart allies. Not only was it an act of political stupidity on the government’s part, it demonstrated bad faith with a key constituency that had helped it garner power three consecutive times.
The final straw for McGuinty came just last week with the ongoing taint of scandal, this time with respect to a decision to scrap two gas fired plants in Mississauga and Oakville which was made during the last election campaign. The cost of cancellation greatly exceeded initial estimates, and it was revealed on “Friday when 20,000 more documents were released, despite the government already promised that there was nothing else to show.” (Matt Gurney, “After nine years, McGuinty saw a mistake he couldn’t aww-shucks away”, National Post, Full Comment, October 15, 2012) Misleading both the legislature and Ontarians is a grave error for which McGuinty would have an uphill battle surviving.
In the end, the crumbling economy, public sector battles and the stench of scandal were becoming for Dalton McGuinty a political death by a thousand cuts. He made the wise choice in tendering his resignation while public affection for his fundamental decency remains, rather than face the slings and arrows of what would have been an agonizing, indefinite mandate, one which would have ended in certain defeat.
Though he leaves political demons behind, McGuinty will be remembered as an upright politician, and a fiduciary of the public interest. One always sensed that for him, public service served a higher purpose, and the narcissism emblematic of many in politics today never characterized him.
Unfortunately, his incessant desire to do right impeded his ability to sufficiently tackle Ontario’s most pressing economic challenges, to rein in incompetent ministers and allegations of scandal, and made him a sworn enemy of previous stalwart allies. It is an irony that McGuinty can posthumously learn his most valuable political lesson from his old nemesis and predecessor, Mike Harris; the old Machiavellian adage that there are indeed times when it is more important to be respected than loved.
Jeremy Richler has completed an MA in Political Science and an LL.B. He is a member in good standing with the Law Society of Upper Canada.