Premier Dad was in vintage form.
Testifying about the expensive cancellation of gas-fired power plants, Dalton McGuinty offered his old chestnut about it never being too late to make the right decision. He spoke of government officials as “people with all their noble strengths and human frailties.” He cited advice that his mother gave him on his wedding day. Recalling his prorogation of the Ontario Legislature as a necessary “time out” that would allow everyone to “cool down,” he stopped just short of reaching across the table and patting opposition MPPs on the head.
It was an assured performance before the legislature’s justice committee, and a reminder of the political skills that allowed Mr. McGuinty to spend nearly a decade in his province’s top job. It was also a reminder of why he finally wore out his welcome.
Looking less jittery than Kathleen Wynne a week earlier, Mr. McGuinty did his best to absolve his successor of responsibility by reiterating she hadn’t been in the loop on the cancellations. For that, and for avoiding making much other news about the controversy, his fellow Liberals were surely grateful.
Where he was less successful was in defaulting to a familiar father-knows-best defence of his policy choices – one that rang hollow because the cancellations stand as the best evidence of him allowing his own interests to overtake his concern for those of the public.
Yes, he conceded, power plants should not have been sited in Oakville and Mississauga, and the government waited too long to cancel them. But it was okay that he had ultimately scrapped them, because it was all about keeping everyone safe.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in this committee talking about those costs,” Mr. McGuinty said of the estimated combined price-tag of nearly $600-million. “But I think parents attach a pretty high price to the health and well-being of their children.”
For much of his time in office, Mr. McGuinty’s political interests seemed to genuinely intersect with his views of what was right and good – on full-day kindergarten, or expanding green-energy production, or even a silly campaign sop like Family Day. He was fond of saying, during his time in office, that he appealed to Ontarians’ “enlightened self-interest.” Yet it’s plain that he didn’t think of opposition to the power plants as enlightened at all.
In 2010, Mr. McGuinty derided Oakville’s outcry as just the sort of NIMBYism that stood in the way of meeting his province’s energy needs, and more broadly its economic ones. Then his campaign team decided that it couldn’t afford to chance the seat of local MPP Kevin Flynn, so there was an abrupt about-face.
By his own account, Mr. McGuinty believed that decision would only cost $40-million, and was as surprised as anyone to learn recently that it would actually be nearly eight times that. As for the Mississauga decision, now estimated by the province’s auditor-general to have been worth $275-million, he seemingly had no idea what he was getting into when he promised during the 2011 election to halt development.
Mr. McGuinty was blatantly flying by the seat of his pants as he tried to claw his way to a third term. That could have put a dent in any premier’s credibility; for one whose appeal revolved around soothingly telling disengaged Ontarians leading “hectic, just-in-time lives” that they could trust him to look out for them, it was all the worse.
No wonder that by the end, Mr. McGuinty’s paternalistic aloofness came to be a liability for him. And no wonder, too, that his successor is winning some fans by not trying as hard to rise above the fray, and by not pretending to have all the answers.
Asked by a reporter after his committee appearance how he felt about the power plants dominating immediate perceptions of his legacy, Mr. McGuinty did not deny some disappointment. “I certainly would prefer not having to go out dealing with this issue,” he allowed, before somewhat half-heartedly listing off achievements of which he’s prouder.
This issue perhaps shouldn’t define his record, and with time it probably won’t. But what happened in Oakville and Mississauga tells the story of how Premier Dad lost his way.