Outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is in a defiant mood heading into Thursday’s premiers conference, unapologetic for his move to prorogue the legislature and insisting it was necessary for his minority government to push its agenda through.
Mr. McGuinty readily acknowledges he knew exactly what he was doing when he shuttered the chamber last month. Prorogation has become a dirty word.
“Absolutely, I knew that,” he said. “It’s seen differently since the federal government had prorogued in the face of an effort on the part of the opposition parties to come together and defeat it.”
But he said his government has done a lot since the prorogation – making progress on labour negotiations, including public-service pensions, teachers and 11,000 public-sector managers.
“Not having the heat of the House act as an impediment to the sense of discussions that are taking place has been very helpful.”
Mr. McGuinty spoke to The Globe and Mail on the eve of what will be his last meeting with his provincial counterparts before he steps down as Premier in late January.
He is in Halifax Thursday and Friday for the Council of the Federation meeting on the economy – and he is the dean of the group, noting that when he started attending these meetings there was not one female premier. Now there are five.
Before making his controversial decision last month, however, the Ontario Premier said he gave his opponents an advance copy of a bill that would freeze public-service wages – and asked for their support. They refused.
“The biggest issue before Ontarians is the economy so it became very apparent I could not address public-service wages in the House. So we have been working hard outside the House.”
Along with the surprising decision to prorogue was the equally startling announcement that he was stepping down as Premier after nine years in office – and only a year after his Liberals had won a minority government. He will sit as an MPP, representing his Ottawa constituency, until the next election.
Although Mr. McGuinty was defiant about his government’s controversial decisions, he was somewhat wistful about his decision to leave politics.
Getting into politics was hard, but getting out is just as hard.
Twenty-two years ago, he and his wife, Terri, had four children under the age of 8. His father, Dalton Sr., an MPP, died suddenly and Mr. McGuinty felt compelled to be the one to replace him.
Now it’s time to leave. “I have made so many friends, I have championed so many causes and you never want to let anyone down,” he said. “But there does come a time when you have to think about putting in place a succession plan.”
He has no regrets, citing his family motto – “never ever look back.” Not even about his decision during the 2011 election campaign to cancel two power plants, dismissing opposition claims that he did so to save the seats of five Liberal MPPs.
“We are in the midst of a massive renewal plan for our electricity system, including locating 17 new gas plants, we got two of those wrong,” he said about the Mississauga and Oakville plants. The cancellation became a big issue during the campaign but Mr. McGuinty argues that Ontarians had a chance to vote on it.
“We were very public about that,” he said. In addition, the NDP and Conservatives “supported our position” that the plants needed to be moved.
“Subsequently, they decided they are going to make some political hay out of it ... they are entitled to do that,” he said. “But it was the right decision. We didn’t get it right the first time. We listened to the communities and got it right the second time.”
As for federal-provincial relations, Mr. McGuinty is critical of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision not to accept the premiers’ invitation to attend this meeting.
The Prime Minister prefers to meet the premiers individually.
“There’s a vacuum in the centre right now, when it comes to providing direction,” he said, reflecting on past federal-provincial meetings. The most remarkable, he said, was being holed up at 24 Sussex Dr. in 2004 with the other premiers, trying to hammer out a health accord with then-prime-minister Paul Martin.
Mr. Martin was in his upstairs office, the premiers were eating cold pizza and drinking beer in the living room, while Mr. McGuinty acted as the go-between, running up and down the stairs. In the end they got a 10-year deal.
“It was messy, it was cumbersome, It was frustrating and it worked out so well,” he said . “I think there is a bit of a lesson there. We need to perservere and we always end up with something that is positive.”