Dalton McGuinty and everything after

Who will replace Dalton McGuinty as Ontario Liberal leader? Writes Paul Wells: That is their problem

Of the last three changes of the Ontario government’s party stripe, two happened when a long-serving premier was replaced by an untested successor who promptly got his clock cleaned by the opposition.

Frank Miller replaced Bill Davis in 1985 and lasted four months as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader before losing 18 seats to the Liberals and NDP and, after those parties presented a confidence pact, finally losing power to David Peterson’s Liberals. Ernie Eves lasted more than a year as Mike Harris’s successor before losing, to Dalton McGuinty, in 2003.

It is always attractive to replace leaders when a party is in trouble but the gambit fails more often than it succeeds. A party keeps the problems it had before, while giving up the very considerable advantages of incumbency. It tells voters who have been in the habit of supporting the party because they grew to like the old leader that they are now free to look around. They often do. At the federal level, John Turner could tell you about that, and Kim Campbell, and, although he did win his first election as leader, Paul Martin.

The Ontario Liberals are electorally weakened by Dalton McGuinty’s departure, but to some extent that is none of his problem. They were electorally strengthened — more than they must have thought possible when he won the leadership after starting in 4th place at the 1996 convention — by his 16 years as leader.

Green and sent into battle with a simplistic message, he lost to Mike Harris in 1999. (“What do you think about when you go to sleep at night?” television host Arlene Bynon asked him, trying desperately to shake him from his health-care-and-education message track. “I think about how much I want to improve health care and education for every Ontarian,” he said, doggedly.) When he escaped his handlers, he was actually a lot of fun to cover. The first day I followed him, he stalked around Kingston making borderline inappropriate jokes as a way of coping with his nervous energy. He walked into a greasy spoon with a mob of staffers and reporters following and announced to the diners, “Hi! We’re here to ruin your lunch.” He kissed a baby and then said to the bewildered mom, “Lady, I’m gonna need to borrow your kid for about the next six weeks.”

His party was smart enough to hang onto him after that first failure, allowing the advantages of incumbency to build while he worked at improving his policy and message. He won in 2003, as too many leaders everywhere do, by affecting ignorance of the real state of the province’s books, pulling the mother of all “I Can’t Believe There’s a Deficit” acts upon arriving in office. The promise not to raise taxes that he had signed during the campaign, with Taxpayers Federation president and future Stephen Harper spokesman John Williamson standing over his shoulder, went wheeling out the window. McGuinty kicked off nearly a decade of taxing and spending.

And Ontarians were pretty happy with it all. McGuinty lost only one seat in the 2007 election, becoming the first Liberal to win consecutive majorities in 70 years. But the government’s bloated fisc has made the recent hard times hard to weather, and last year voters administered a haircut, cutting the Liberals to one seat short of a majority. Trouble has piled up for McGuinty since. He decided to take the exit.

He did it by proroguing the Ontario legislature, which will upset people who worry about prorogation of legislatures. I am sure you won’t have to look far for some outrage on that front, but I am afraid we’re fresh out here at Inkless.

Will he be a candidate for the federal Liberal leadership? I would be astonished, but then, McGuinty has already astonished me once tonight. I’ll note only that in January he spoke to the federal Liberal convention in Ottawa. While that speech drew a lot of attention and excitement among Liberals who were a bit hungry for good news, in substance it constituted a warning to the federal party that today’s Dalton McGuinty is not the sort of leader they should be seeking.

“My party’s journey from opposition to government took seven years under my leadership,” he said. “Choosing a new leader is no quick fix. I’m the big proof of that. There are no saviours. There are no overnight successes. There is only hard work — lots of it. ” He mentioned Wilfrid Laurier: “As leader of the opposition he spent nine years growing and strengthening our party until he earned government. …Laurier should inspire all of us, especially now.”

Seven years from now Dalton McGuinty will be 64.

Who will replace him as Ontario Liberal leader? That is their problem. At the next election, the Liberals will be the only party with an untested leader in his or her first election. That leader will have to do the same obligatory silly dance all new leaders of incumbent parties do, trying to decide whether they should represent Change on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Continuity on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or vice versa. These days I call it the Christy Clark Dance.

One last thing. I have genuinely admired the work McGuinty has done in leading Ontario’s public schools, and I am not alone. The OECD’s triennial PISA international testing project has shown consistent strength in Ontario schools. Here is what PISA director Andreas Schleicher says about Ontario’s performance:

“The Ontario story is also one of strong central leadership coupled with a major investment in capacity-building and trust-building in the field. I’ve been impressed how the McGuinty government worked tirelessly to build a sense of shared understanding and common purpose among key stakeholder groups. Their success rested heavily on the confidence that the government had in the quality of the teaching force. The decision to invest in encouraging local experimentation and innovation has sent a very strong signal that a teacher-generated solution can achieve more than solutions imposed from above. …

“The McGuinty government made no attempt to dismantle or even weaken the assessment regime put in place by the previous government and it consistently communicates that student outcomes matter. But its response to weak performance has consistently been intervention and support, not blame and punishment. They succeeded to dramatically reduce the number of low-performing schools, not by threatening to close them, but by flooding schools with technical assistance and support.”