Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty enjoys being underestimated. That way, when he makes key political moves there is a greater public impact. So when he delivered a one-two punch at the dinner hour on Monday that he was proroguing the legislature and stepping down as premier and leader of the Ontario Liberals, it sent shock waves not just across the province but across the country.
Some political pundits had seen the writing on the wall for some time now, as McGuinty obviously did, given the fact that he had not been able to find his balance running a minority government after eight years with a majority.
McGuinty’s tenure had run its natural course. Nine years in power is a long time in a democracy and is not without collateral damage.
With 22 years in politics, 17 of which he was leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and nine as Premier of Ontario, McGuinty brought the Liberals to power in this province that traditionally prefers to elect Conservative governments. He was savvy enough to signal the message that he would function as a conservative while in the top job. Even so, He has managed to put forward distinctly Liberal policies such as in his support of education, all-day kindergarten being a standout, and improvements in health care, such as shorter wait times, and lowering the cost of medication.
And, despite criticism about the deficit burden, the numbers prove that the difficult task of reducing the deficit is beginning to show results.
Yet, in order to control the deficit, McGuinty did an about-face, using tactics more like the Harris Conservatives of the mid-1990s. His attempt to create a crisis by legislating away the right of teachers to strike, for as long as it takes to balance the budget, riled the teaching establishment.
Questionable oversight or lack of oversight on the health portfolio has also created a drag on his legacy.
It was reported recently that McGuinty refused a request to speak at the probe into fiscal waste and overspending at ORNGE air ambulance service. Also in the health ministry is the issue of overspending and waste in the eHealth project to convert medical records and communications management to a computerized protocol.
The latest issue, and seemingly the last straw, is the charge of improprieties made by the opposition parties regarding the cancellation of contracts for two power plants – in Mississauga and Oakville – for which construction had already begun. The cost to cancel the contracts has been said to be some $230 million, but there are now suggestions by the Opposition that the final bill to taxpayers could rise to as much as $1 billion. The cancellations were the result of Liberal campaign promises that were blatant attempts to win seats in the ridings where they were being built over the objections of local residents.
A further indication of McGuinty’s troubles came last month when the New Democrat Party (NDP) won the by-election in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding long held by Conservative Elizabeth Witmer. McGuinty engineered that by-election in his attempt to improve his party’s standing in the legislature. Had the Liberals won, he would have regained a working majority.
Along with the shock of Monday’s retirement announcement, there is anger that McGuinty decided to shut down the Legislature, effectively squashing all motions and bills on the table. Predictably, the Opposition Progressive Conservatives and the NDP are campaigning to have the premier rescind that decision.
McGuinty has really peaked in this job and his decision to step aside was the right one. He is leaving at a time of his choosing and on his terms. At the same time, in taking a page from others who have used prorogation to their advantage (Prime Minister Steven Harper comes to mind), he is leaving under a cloud, which will no doubt follow whoever takes over as Liberal leader.
Now the question is whether the Liberals, who have become the third party at the federal level, can retain their provincial footing in Ontario. The new leader will have to present a strong enough vision to the voters of Ontario to stave off PC leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath in the inevitable provincial election, which we anticipate will come in the spring, if not before.