The (partial) return of Dalton McGuinty

He was persona non grata after leaving office in 2013. Now, Ontario Liberals need him to help bring their party back to life
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 16, 2019
Dalton McGuinty
Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s 24th premier, left office six and a half years ago. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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It’s been six and a half years since he was the premier of Ontario. And his departure from public life was one of the more ignominious any first minister has ever taken.

Dalton McGuinty’s brand was considered so problematic back in 2013 that he not only left office, but he also left the country — he spent a year at Harvard University as a senior fellow — in hopes of giving his successor the space she needed to change the narrative surrounding the Liberals. It’s called taking one for the team, and it worked. Kathleen Wynne managed to win the 2014 election, overcoming any issues her predecessor had left behind for her. And McGuinty deserves credit for resisting the temptation to intervene or comment when his successor announced policies that veered from those he’d implemented during his years in office.

But having suffered its worst-ever defeat in the 2018 election, the Liberal party today is in desperate shape. So the brass have reached out to the Liberals’ most successful premier in more than a century in hopes that he’ll be able to raise some much-needed money and get the party back in the game.

In some respects, the past six years must have been very difficult for McGuinty. The problems of his final years exploded in the media (both legacy and social), creating a level of vitriol that bordered on the hysterical. Like all premiers, he had his victories and his defeats. But one way to judge premiers is by the policy achievements that successive governments decide to keep in place. By that measure, McGuinty had some major wins.

His government closed all the coal-fired electricity-generating stations in the province, helping to ensure that we would no longer have smog days (people with asthma are no doubt happy about that). Both the Wynne and Doug Ford governments were urged to re-open those coal plants, which can generate power very cheaply, as a short-term fix for high electricity prices.

No one did. And no one will.

McGuinty’s government created full-day kindergarten, which even penny-pinching Tories have left alone: the program is just too popular to mess with.

He pitched in billions of dollars to save auto-manufacturing jobs at General Motors and Chrysler.

And the Greenbelt remains one of the province’s most impressive attempts to protect lands from overdevelopment. For Ontario’s 24th premier, paving paradise and putting up a parking lot was not an option.

These are all parts of the McGuinty legacy that seem as if they will be secure for years to come (although Ford has mused about allowing development in the Greenbelt).

Of course, McGuinty had his problems as well. About two dozen natural-gas plants were successfully sited without controversy and are generating electricity for present and future generations. But two — in Mississauga and Oakville — were not. McGuinty cancelled those, saying it was inappropriate to build them so close to hospitals or schools. The bill for breaking the contracts to build those plants still hasn’t been conclusively determined, but Ontario’s auditor general estimated that it could come to $1 billion. And most people seem to think McGuinty cancelled those contracts to save seats in those constituencies.

Rebuilding the electricity system cost far more than anyone thought it would and sent hydro bills skyrocketing. And subsidies to renewable-energy manufacturers were overly generous for some tastes.

All in all, the electricity file was a nightmare.

Critics also thought that McGuinty’s governments spent way too much. The debt-to-GDP ratio when McGuinty became premier in 2003 was 26.8 per cent. When he left office a decade later, it was 38.2 per cent. No, that’s not Greece, but it’s also not Bill Davis’s Ontario, where the number was below 15 per cent in the early 1980s.

Total debt nudged past a quarter of a trillion dollars by the time McGuinty left office. Yes, his Liberals (like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) spent a lot of money fighting the ravages of the Great Recession. And Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals blasted the debt past $300 billion, in relatively buoyant economic times. It has all contributed to making Ontario the most indebted sub-national jurisdiction in the world.

However, when you add it all up, it’s undeniable that the guy, politically, was a winner. McGuinty had the benefit of being a very good and a very lucky campaigner. After a wooden rookie campaign in 1999, in which he lost to Mike Harris, McGuinty led the Liberals to three consecutive election victories. No other Ontario Liberal leader had managed to do that in almost 130 years. It’s also true that McGuinty got lucky, inasmuch as the PC leaders in 2003, 2007, and 2011 made unforced errors from which the Liberal leader greatly benefited.

But the former premier was also very good on the hustings. He was relentlessly positive in the face of brutal opposition. He and his team built a solid red machine that saw the Grits win seats they hadn’t or had barely ever won in decades. And in the captain’s chair was “Premier Dad,” who, despite the haters, now stands as the sixth-longest-serving Ontario premier of the 26 who’ve had the job.

Ever since he left the premier’s office, in 2013, McGuinty has done his level best to keep an extremely low profile. He routinely (but politely) rejects invitations to give interviews on television. So why did he accept the invitation to speak on September 17 to the Red Trillium Club, an organization that costs $1,200 a year for Liberal supporters to join?

“Leaders come and leaders go,” McGuinty responded in an email to me last Friday. “What counts is that the party endures and that it continues to find new ways to give expression to our timeless values. Making progress together and looking out for each other is a mission that will never go out of style or lose its urgency. This is the bedrock on which we build a strong economy and a caring society.”

The first draft of history, written by the journalists of the day, is often quite harsh. As time goes by, and with the benefit of greater perspective, many government decisions become more understandable. Liberals evidently think that enough time has transpired for their supporters to remember the warm, fuzzy successes of the McGuinty years, rather than the controversies.

“I had the privilege of serving as leader of our party for seventeen years,” McGuinty adds. “I’m proud of what we accomplished but legacies are unimportant to our children. What’s important to them is the future. I believe our party’s responsibility is to build a bright future and that we will profit from our time in opposition to grow stronger for the benefit of Ontarians.”

Someone who worked in McGuinty’s premier’s office put it to me this way: “He’s the Bill Davis of the Ontario Liberal party. Time heals and even forgets all but the good times, eventually.”

“Eventually” seems to be now. Welcome to the beginning of the political resurrection of Dalton McGuinty.

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