When Dalton McGuinty announced his departure from provincial politics on Monday night, precisely two members of his caucus knew what was coming. Dwight Duncan – Finance Minister, Deputy Premier and the closest the Premier has to a friend in his cabinet – had been summoned to his office a few minutes before. So had Yasir Naqvi, the Ottawa MPP who serves as president of the Ontario Liberal Party.
Even they, though, had no say in Mr. McGuinty’s decision. That honour had belonged on the weekend solely to Mr. McGuinty’s inner circle, which at its nucleus consists of his brother and his campaign manager. Most everyone else, as always, was left trying to explain the motives of one of the most inscrutable men ever to hold his province’s highest office.
As he made his announcement, the sadness among his fellow Liberals was genuine: wistful looks, and a few tears, and a cry of “No!” when the man who had led them for the past 16 years asked if they were ready for what he was about to tell them.
In the days that followed, the sadness was tinged with frustration. They had felt privileged at one time or another to work for someone who had seemed to have the basic qualities wanted in politicians, basic decency and personal responsibility among them. Then they watched this week as he left office amid a scandal around the politically motivated cancellation of contracts to build power plants.
That controversy wasn’t the main impetus for his departure (cabinet ministers, staff and others who have observed him closely say they’ve noticed for months that he’s been wearied by minority government after eight years with a majority) and it wasn’t the sole factor in his much-criticized prorogation of the legislature. But it will forever be linked to both of those decisions.
However upsetting that is for supporters, it is not as incongruous with his career as they would like to think. In fact, as a final act, it is in some ways fitting.
Mr. McGuinty is not really the boy scout he appears publicly. He is by all accounts a nice man, with a strong commitment to public service. Yet he accepted, even embraced, the notion that winning and keeping power means playing crass politics. What happened with the power plants was the culmination of a calculation he made a long time ago, and evidence of the duality of the man who has run the largest province for nearly a decade.
A quick learner
Mr. McGuinty was a boy scout, once. That was in the 1999 election, his first as Liberal Leader, when he clearly had no idea what he was in for against the bare-knuckles campaign run by Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives, and promptly got thrashed.
That he had learned from this experience, a former official says, was evident in a couple of crassly populist promises he made in the runup to his second election as Leader, in 2003. In one instance, he scored points among suburbanites by promising to lower tolls on the 407 highway, even though he knew he really wouldn’t have any control over them. In another, foreshadowing his later approach to the energy file, he performed a stunning about-face – first criticizing then-premier Ernie Eves’s pledge to cap hydro rates, then quickly matching the promise when he realized it was popular.
In between his first campaign and his second, Mr. McGuinty also significantly overhauled his office. That included bringing in some cutthroat political fixers, ruthless about heading off dissent, unapologetic about stroking interest groups that needed to be stroked, and generally willing to do whatever it takes to win – a group headed by a Windsor organizer named Dave Gene, who has been in the office ever since.
“You judge a leader by the people he chooses to be around him,” a long-time insider says. “And he chose some of the most ruthless operators to be there to help him implement his vision.”
In conversations, several senior Liberals suggested that in opposition and then in government, Mr. McGuinty chose to “outsource” politics. Others would do his bidding, while he stayed on the high ground, focused on broader policy areas– health care, education, the environment – that excited him.
Although Mr. McGuinty could also be surprisingly ruthless – more than a few ministers, staffers or allies have been tossed under the bus when perceived to have become liabilities – there is something to that theory. And for a long time, it worked rather well for him.
Yin and yang
In his first term, Mr. McGuinty seemed to achieve a fairly healthy balance between politics and governance. Don Guy, his campaign manager and newly minted chief of staff, handled the former. Gerald Butts, who held the pen on party platforms, wound up in a sort of parallel role as principal secretary and counterbalanced Mr. Guy. “Yin and yang,” as one staffer who was around at the time put it.
Not long into Mr. McGuinty’s second term, which began in 2007, both Mr. Guy and Mr. Butts were gone from the Premier’s Office. But Mr. Guy remained as campaign manager. Alongside Brendan McGuinty, the Premier’s hyper-political brother, he formed the core of the Premier’s inner circle, which Mr. Butts was slowly pushed out of. And he maintained a strong influence on the government’s operations, either directly or through close allies in the Premier’s Office.
“Over time, political expediency crept into the culture more and more,” recalls a former minister.
Not that the government always did what was easy or immediately advantageous. The Liberals’ second term, notably, saw the implementation of the new harmonized sales tax, Mr. McGuinty’s willingness to make difficult and potentially unpopular decisions manifesting itself. (That term also involved the introduction of full-day kindergarten, a perfect marriage of politics and the Premier’s policy interests if ever there was one.)
But insiders suggest that somewhere around the 2009 scandal at eHealth Ontario – the sort of thing that inevitably afflicts multiterm governments – the Liberals shifted heavily into “issues-management” mode. New policy ideas were harder and harder to get through, with a heavy focus on staying out of trouble and keeping voters happy.
Many Liberals complain that, meanwhile, the political operatives were running amok – settling scores, driving out or undermining perceived threats to their control, and wielding influence over ministers and staffs, aware that they had Mr. McGuinty’s confidence.
Little of this, of course, entered the public consciousness. But the power plants, if not the most egregious examples of politics over policy, ultimately proved the ones that penetrated the Queen’s Park bubble.
Highly political decisions
For months, Mr. McGuinty rejected protests in the upper-income suburban city of Oakville over the gas-fired plant scheduled to be built there. Even Liberal MPP Kevin Flynn, pleading for his political life, couldn’t sway him. The process awarding the construction contract had been depoliticized, and generally beyond reproach; scrapping it would be a green light to NIMBYism everywhere.
In October 2010, less than a year before the next election, Mr. Flynn was suddenly dispatched to announce that the plant had been cancelled – over the wishes of the Ontario Power Authority, and at the expense of ratepayers. Those who were in the Premier’s Office at the time insist they were appeased by advice that reduced energy demand reduced the need for new generation, but they don’t really deny that there was heavy intervention by outside operatives.
In September 2011, weeks before the election, a plant already under construction in Mississauga met the same fate. This time, at least the involvement of the campaign team was official. But that meant the government and its agencies were stuck trying to sort it out after the election – this time at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Chris Bentley, named Energy Minister after the Liberals clung to power in that election, has been stuck holding the bag for the subsequent fallout. But there’s little doubt that Mr. McGuinty owns it – something he arguably acknowledged by making the unpopular decision to prorogue, which spares Mr. Bentley being found in contempt of the legislature for being slow to release related documents.
Some of his admirers contend that was proof of Mr. McGuinty’s decency and sense of personal responsibility, and perhaps it was. But what has happened this fall has also been a reminder of the Premier’s duality.
He has never loved politics, in the way some politicians love politics, so his enthusiasm for trying to make sense of a fractious minority legislature quickly waned. But the fitting irony is that it was highly political decisions that came back to bite him.