Dalton McGuinty was ready, in what felt like his last day on the job, for the inevitable questions about the apparent mess he’s leaving behind.
“Any objective observer would have to conclude that when it comes to the big things, we got those right,” he said at what might have been his last press conference as Ontario Premier. Then, and again later on Wednesday heading into his final cabinet meeting, he rattled off a list of accomplishments that included higher student test scores, shorter hospital waiting times and cleaner air.
Mr. McGuinty has every right to take pride in these aspects of his record, and others besides. Yet to look at the immediate future of the country’s largest province as he makes his exit is to doubt that he can really feel all that satisfied.
Denying most interview requests, he has made it clear he does not believe he owes anyone a window into his soul. But from his infrequent public appearances in recent months, it has been possible to piece together a sense of how he would like us to view his legacy.
“Every time Ontarians see a hospital being expanded, or a school being built, or new pipe being laid beside the road, or new transit being installed, it lifts us up a little bit,” he said to a conference on public-private partnerships. “It reassures us that we are on track as an economy and a society; that we are fulfilling the responsibility owed by the older generation to the younger one; that we never stop working hard to build a bright future for our children and our grandchildren.”
Those last lines seemed fitting for a Premier who tended to lose a bit of his customary aloofness when he was around kids. But what exactly has he left them?
The provincial deficit of $11.9-billion is, without adjusting for inflation, more than double the one he inherited in 2003. Much of that sum can be attributed to economic circumstances beyond his control, but the Premier also ignored looming cost pressures (caused largely by an aging population) until his final couple of years in office.
Labour peace, purchased at considerable cost, eroded at almost the first sign of fiscal trouble. Today, the environment in the province’s schools is nearly as toxic as it was under his Progressive Conservative predecessors, and in a best-case scenario, the relationship with teachers – instrumental to those improved test scores – will take years to rebuild.
The Greater Toronto Area, the province’s economic engine, is so clogged with congestion that it is becoming almost impossible to move around. Mr. McGuinty’s Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, has effectively acknowledged that while their government upgraded crumbling infrastructure elsewhere, it did not do enough to improve transit in relatively good times; nobody knows where money will come from to fix it now.
Other parts of Ontario wish their problem was accommodating all the traffic. Particularly in the province’s southwestern rust belt, where Mr. McGuinty’s controversial green-energy plan hasn’t counterbalanced the decline of the manufacturing sector as hoped, the worry is instead about becoming hollowed out.
Partly because of that green-energy strategy, the last election revealed an Ontario more divided than at any time in recent memory. Amid deepening resentments, common purpose seems a long way off.
Then there is the matter of how Ontarians view their government, and its ability to meet its myriad challenges. Mr. McGuinty, a personally upstanding father-knows-best sort, should if anything have been able to help give politicians a slightly better name. Instead, he stuck around long enough to be tainted by scandal and then headed for the hills while suspending the legislature – playing into “these guys are all the same” sentiments that fuel mounting disengagement.
It is perhaps too easy to itemize an outgoing premier’s shortcomings, without giving credit for tough decisions and sharp policy focus. Financial stability would be further off if Ontario were not moving faster than most other provinces to modernize health care. The economic outlook might be dimmer if Mr. McGuinty had not expended political capital by overhauling the sales-tax system. A generation would be less prepared if not for his wonky interest in unflashy education policies that prevent kids from slipping through the cracks. The auto industry might be dead if he had not taken leadership on a bailout.
In other words, it could be a whole lot worse. And it is entirely possible that after his ugly exit has faded from memory, Mr. McGuinty will be viewed as having done more good than harm, which is as much as most politicians can hope for.
On Wednesday, though, it was slightly unnerving to hear him drawing on his recent trip to China to imply that Ontarians should be grateful they have it better than most other populations. For a Premier who for years has ended almost all his speeches by referring to Ontario as “the greatest province in the best country in the world,” the bar is surely higher than that.