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Ontario's Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty holds a press conference in the Ontario Legislature on Monday October 15, 2012, after resigning. (Chris Young/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario's Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty holds a press conference in the Ontario Legislature on Monday October 15, 2012, after resigning. (Chris Young/The Globe and Mail)

Even prorogation has a silver lining Add to ...

It was at once cynical and clumsy – an incredibly ugly way to bring an end to a successful political career.

After nearly two weeks of gnashing our teeth, it might be time to acknowledge that it was also a blessing.

Dalton McGuinty’s exit as Premier, combined with his prorogation of the legislature, has plunged Ontario into what is effectively a protracted election campaign. A Liberal leadership race until late January; a short legislative sitting to follow; a general election after the government is almost inevitably defeated.

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Horrible though that may sound to anyone already weary of the province’s acrimonious politics, it represents an opportunity that the men and women vying to succeed Mr. McGuinty need badly to take advantage of, to make up for missed opportunities until now.

A little more than a year ago, Ontarians endured a campaign little short of shameful. In a province staring into the precipice of fiscal crisis and economic decline, the three parties pretended it was business as usual. Mr. McGuinty pitched a stay-the-course message, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak wasted his time on side issues, and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath ran a campaign generously described as style over substance.

Fittingly, that election produced a government ill-suited to address the province’s challenges. Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals suddenly lurched toward an austerity agenda, but lacked the mandate to do so and kept tripping over their own baggage.

There were some serious efforts made by the government to chip away at its deficit – wage freezes, cuts to funding that supported horse racing in rural Ontario and transit in the north. But few mistook them for the scale of change needed. And aside from striking a “Jobs and Prosperity Council,” and somewhat confusedly musing about changes to post-secondary education, the government seemed to have little idea how to beat grim economic-growth projections.

If the Liberals had come up with big economic or fiscal plans, the increasingly toxic atmosphere in the minority legislature would have made them virtually impossible to push through regardless.

The trouble with prorogation is that it allowed Mr. McGuinty to duck accountability for past sins. But if we’re being honest, the circumstances around the cancellation of a couple of power-plant contracts – however badly they reflected on the Premier – are not central to Ontario’s future.

More interesting, with Mr. McGuinty leaving office, is whether his successors will be able to do more than he could to get the province out of its fiscal and economic hole. And now, they have an opening to tell us.

To his credit, Mr. Hudak has recently sent strong signals about his inclination toward union-busting, tax cuts and major cutbacks to government spending; now, he has a chance to flesh all that out. Ms. Horwath has done less to set out a policy agenda, but her rise in the polls suggests some appetite for a less confrontational, more compassionate agenda; it’s up to her to explain what a left-of-centre approach to balancing the books is, exactly. As for the Liberals, Mr. McGuinty’s exit and the ensuing leadership contest gives them a chance to consider anew where the middle ground lies, and whether they have anything fresh and interesting to say.

What Ontario is headed into is far from ideal. In the absence of strong leadership and a legislative agenda until at least mid-2013, the province will forfeit precious time in which it could be making headway toward structural reforms.

But having endured that lost year, another few months probably won’t make or break Ontario’s future. Freed from the daily news cycle at Queen’s Park, the floor is wide open for would-be premiers to answer the questions that got short shrift during the past campaign. The biggest outrage will be if we emerge from this period, too, without answers.

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