TORONTO – Beaten down by a series of scandals, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced late Monday he was stepping down as Liberal leader and adjourning the legislature because his minority government can’t pass legislation to freeze the wages of nearly half a million public sector workers.
After 16 years as party leader and nine as premier, it’s time for new blood, McGuinty told a surprised Liberal caucus as his wife Terri and brother Brendan looked on.
“It’s time for renewal, it’s time for the next Liberal premier, it’s time for the next set of Liberal ideas to guide our province forward,” McGuinty told the caucus.
“To that end, I spoke with the president of our party and asked that he convene a leadership convention at the earliest possible opportunity.”
McGuinty said he would stay on as the MPP for Ottawa-South until the next election, but there was also speculation he would take a run for the leadership of the federal Liberals. For the past month, a draft campaign has been in the works to persuade McGuinty to jump into the federal race, but he ducked the question Monday night.
“We have no plans with respect to our future,” McGuinty told reporters.
“I am not making any plans whatsoever beyond my duties here at Queen’s Park.”
McGuinty’s Liberals have been under fire for months for an out-of-control air ambulance service and faced a second contempt motion Monday for cancelling gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers.
However, the premier insisted it wasn’t the controversy over the cancelled gas plants that prompted his sudden resignation, but rather cited his daughter’s recent wedding and the recent Liberal annual general meeting as “emotional” times where he realized it was time for the party to renew itself.
McGuinty blamed the fight over a public sector wage freeze for his second surprise —adjourning the legislature. He vowed the Liberals would try to negotiate zero-increase agreements with the unions — something the NDP has demanded — and would also use the break to negotiate with the Progressive Conservatives.
“They oppose our wage freeze plan, and that means we can’t make it the law, certainly as it stands at this point,” said McGuinty.
“I met with the LG (lieutenant-governor) earlier today and asked that we prorogue the house so that we can pursue both discussions, both tracks, in a way that is free of the heightened rancour that has sadly, too frequently, characterized our legislature of late.”
The government needs the wage freeze for about 481,000 public sector workers to trim the $14.4-billion deficit, and McGuinty said proroguing will give the government time to find out exactly what the Tories want to approve the plan.
“We’re going to continue to reach out to the Opposition to see if we can determine precisely what they would need by way of a legislative response to ensure that we could, through legislation, put in place the necessary wage freeze.”
There’s no obvious successor to McGuinty, but names often spoken of as potential leadership candidates include Housing Minister Kathleen Wynne, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan and Energy Minister Chris Bentley, who has been the focus of the opposition attacks and original contempt motion over the cancelled gas plants.
Conservative Leader Tim Hudak set aside the angry rhetoric of recent weeks Monday to remember how McGuinty came over to shake his hand and welcome the newly-elected Tory to the legislature when he was first elected.
“I have never doubted his sincere commitment to the people in this great province of Ontario, and I thank him for his service,” said Hudak.
However, the Tory leader said he doesn’t want to see the business of the legislature, and the contempt charges over the gas plants, be brought to a standstill.
“I do hope that the premier will reconsider his decision to prorogue the legislature,” said Hudak.
“I do hope the premier will reconsider — I strongly urge him to do so — to bring the legislature back in session.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also urged McGuinty to reconsider adjourning the legislature, saying there is too much important work still to be done, especially around the cancelled gas plants.
“I don’t believe prorogation nullifies the government’s responsibility, or the premier’s responsibility, for the fiasco at the Oakville and Mississauga power plants. That’s the bottom line,” said Horwath.
“The timing is very curious certainly. The history books will write whether the premier was being strategic or not.”
With the legislature now prorogued, the scheduled finance committee hearings into the gas plant cancellations and all other legislative business will be cancelled. There won’t be any committee’s either because the three parties have been unable to agree on their makeup under a minority government. McGuinty offered no time frame for when he might recall the legislature.
McGuinty told the caucus the Liberals have made some mistakes in government, but got the big things right in education, health and the environment.
“We’ve gone from Canada’s longest health-care wait times to its shortest, we’ve gone from dirty air to clean air and now we have the toughest drinking water standards anywhere,” he said to a standing ovation from the Liberal caucus.
McGuinty was also praised by interim federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who was the NDP premier of Ontario when McGuinty was a rookie MPP.
“Mr. McGuinty has made Ontario a global leader in education by introducing full-day kindergarten and by making post-secondary education more accessible and affordable than ever before,” Rae said in a statement.
Former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory, who lost the 2007 election to McGuinty, questioned the Liberal leaders’ timing of his announcements.
“There will be plenty of time in the weeks and months ahead to judge his record in office…part of that record will be the decision to prorogue the legislature at this time when we need transparency and accountability more than ever,” said Tory.
“While there may be practical reasons behind that decision, I don’t think it will be seen as a good decision, short or long term.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said McGuinty was MPP for Ottawa-Centre.