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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media after making an announcement to resign from the leadership of the Ontario provincial Liberal party at Queen's Park in Toronto October 15, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media after making an announcement to resign from the leadership of the Ontario provincial Liberal party at Queen's Park in Toronto October 15, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Dalton McGuinty, the man who knew when to go Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty did not do a Jean Charest. The Ontario Premier, unlike the former Quebec premier, did not tempt fate by trying for a fourth mandate. He won three elections and quit, on his own terms, bloodied to be sure but with accomplishments to his credit.

Governments in their third terms, such as Mr. McGuinty’s, have been kicked and nicked. Their failures become more remembered than their successes, and the oldest sentiment in a democracy begins to be felt: time for a change. A wise leader hears the clock ticking and heeds its advice.

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It is said, partly because Mr. McGuinty did not rule out the possibility, that he might seek the federal Liberal leadership. He might remember, as he ponders that prospect, that no provincial premier has ever become prime minister since the very end of the 19th century.

Mr. McGuinty would certainly eclipse Justin Trudeau in experience and gravitas. He would clearly know Ontario better, a political prize critical for any federal Liberal recovery.

But a fresh face? From Ontario, a province not exactly loved elsewhere in Canada, carrying the inevitable baggage of having served in high office for a long time? For someone who said he’s leaving to spend more time with his family – often a phony explanation – seeking the federal leadership and then, even if successful, leading a third party in the House of Commons ought to sober his reflections. He should also reflect on the prospect of facing the federal Conservatives’ attack machine, which would make dealing with Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak seem like kid’s play.

Mr. McGuinty was caught in the whirlwind of fiscal problems, some of which were beyond his control, others his government’s own making. The recession of 2008 was particularly brutal for Ontario, even though the province’s financial institutions weathered the upheaval well. But manufacturing got hammered by the recession and a Canadian dollar trading at par with the greenback.

These developments exposed Ontario’s precarious situation within Canada, whereby it went from paymaster to province receiving equalization payments. But, given the way redistributive policies work in this country, money from Ontarians still flows through federal programs (unemployment insurance, for example) to other parts of Canada despite the fact the province receives equalization.

To these challenges were added the McGuinty government’s determination to spend very heavily on health care and education. The providers in these systems – doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators – benefited handsomely from this spending. When the government’s fiscal circumstances changed drastically for the worse, Mr. McGuinty found himself confronted by the same intransigence, especially from some teachers’ unions, that former NDP premier Bob Rae once faced.

The self-styled “education premier” discovered another of the oldest rules of politics: that gratitude seldom exists, even from those who had been so overtly favoured. What have you done for me lately is the golden rule of politics, and Mr. McGuinty, in adopting a tough line with public-sector unions, relearned that rule.

They called Mr. McGuinty the “nanny premier,” referring to his tendency to believe that government intervention could steer private decisions and ameliorate social problems.

Mr. McGuinty, to his considerable credit, grasped the nettle of the climate-change challenge. He could have looked the other way and done little or nothing. Instead, he committed his government to eliminating emissions from coal-fired generation stations, and piled subsidies into clean energy.

Inevitably, markets and prices changed, and the government miscalculated incentives, so the province wound up with a very expensive program whose rules were constantly adjusted. Then the appearance of large windmills outraged some rural areas, costing Mr. McGuinty politically, witness to which were lost rural constituencies in the last election.

On the national stage, Mr. McGuinty always played a constructive role. He stuck up for his province, as premiers are paid to do, but he tried to be helpful. One exception was the rhetoric against Alberta’s bitumen oil, but that rhetoric ended when the counterproductive nature of it became evident. He enjoyed especially good relations with Mr. Charest, sustaining an ongoing dialogue that extended to joint meetings of the two provincial cabinets.

When final verdicts are offered (if any verdict is ever final), Dalton McGuinty won three elections and quit at a time of his choosing.

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