Dalton McGuinty has been Premier of Ontario for long enough, has put his family through enough sacrifice, that it’s normally hard to begrudge him a day off.
But on this day, it just didn’t feel right.
You just have to take ownership of some decisions, right or wrong. And one that could lead simultaneously to ongoing chaos in the province’s schools, a protracted legal battle and all sorts of grief for your successor surely fits the bill.
Yet it was Education Minister Laurel Broten left to explain on Thursday why the government will use the powers of the controversial Bill 115 to impose new contracts on teachers’ unions unilaterally; she also had the honour of extending a flimsy olive branch in the form of a rather meaningless promise to repeal that legislation once it has served its purpose. As for Mr. McGuinty, he did all his talking through a three-page open letter that hinted at this outcome the previous day.
In so doing, the Premier displayed a now-familiar aloofness toward his former allies in the teachers’ unions that would have been unthinkable at this time last year. Evident since last spring, it combined with intermittently peculiar strategic judgment to make the labour battle even more unpleasant than it needed to be, and even more hazardous to the prospects of whoever winds up leading the governing Liberals when Mr. McGuinty makes his exit this winter.
All the warm and fuzzies in the world would not have prompted the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation or especially the militant Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to roll over and give the government what it wanted, including various wage-restraint measures and an end to banking sick days. But Mr. McGuinty barely even attempted to trade on all the goodwill accumulated over the eight years he treated teachers generously.
Rather than meet directly, he kicked off negotiations last March by imploring them through a YouTube video to “do your part.” While he later admitted the tactic “backfired,” it set the tone for what followed – the government trading heavily in ultimatums, with the Premier’s Office calling the shots but Ms. Broten serving as the front person.
Although that strategy worked with the relatively compliant Catholic teachers’ association, it otherwise widened rifts. And rather than trying to bridge them, as the 2012-13 school year loomed, the Liberals sought to exploit them. In the lead-up to a September by-election that could have restored their legislative majority, they positioned their erstwhile friends as enemies.
When that backfired as well, with the Liberal candidate placing third, a bunker mentality appeared to set in. While there were glimmers of hope with the OSSTF after a mediator was brought in, the government concluded that ETFO was a lost cause. And when teachers began to schedule one-day strikes before the Christmas break, as it became obvious that contracts were going to be imposed early in the new year, even the Liberal caucus was in the dark as to how the government might respond, impeding MPPs’ ability to communicate the government’s intentions to the public.
None of this is to let the unions off the hook; what the government asked wasn’t especially unreasonable, and their response has been out of sync with what most Ontarians have experienced in recent years. But a Premier who in the past showed an admirable willingness to defend tough decisions clearly wanted little part of this one – consistently letting Ms. Broten hold the bag, even after he had no cause to worry about re-election.
He clearly worried about something, though. That pledge to repeal Bill 115, which becomes an empty shell as soon as its powers are used, might best have been left to his successor as a symbolic gesture to put distance between himself or herself and Mr. McGuinty. Instead, the Premier burned it up in hope either of clearing the decks or leaving on a less sour note.
Either way, it might have been more effective if Mr. McGuinty had made the promise himself, using the communication prowess he once displayed to explain why it was necessary. But that would have required something he evidently didn’t have in him any more.