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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Ontario government tax revenues grew by an average of 7.3 per cent between 2004-05 and 2007-08 – and so did program expenditures. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Ontario government tax revenues grew by an average of 7.3 per cent between 2004-05 and 2007-08 – and so did program expenditures. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

For all his success, McGuinty has made one of the ugliest political exits Ontario has ever seen Add to ...

This is the point at which we could be saying generous things about Dalton McGuinty. About how he oversaw improvements to the education system, began the arduous task of making health-care spending sustainable, made long overdue investments in crumbling infrastructure and boldly undertook tax reforms that he thought would improve competitiveness. About how even some of his missteps, green-energy expansion being the most obvious, were born of good intentions.

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That is, we could be saying such things if the former premier had not made generosity toward him damn near impossible.

It is hard to explain what exactly happened to Mr. McGuinty during the period following the 2011 election. Maybe he had spent too long in power and lost touch, which was always a danger for someone a bit remote to begin with. Maybe he suffered from no longer being able to lean as much on longtime advisers. Maybe he was just tired, and fed up, and aware that he had stuck around too long.

Whatever it was, the most successful Ontario Liberal since the Second World War – a man who had taken his knocks early in his career, and for a long time seemed to have developed pretty good instincts – has made one of the ugliest political exits his province has seen.

What happened last fall would have been bad enough. Mr. McGuinty, by some accounts, decided months earlier he was done. But it was only when he was really feeling the heat over the growing costs of his decisions to cancel construction of a pair of gas-fired power plants, the opposition threatening to find then-energy minister Chris Bentley in contempt of the legislature for failing to swiftly produce related documents, that he announced he would retire as premier. And with a patronizing and somewhat confused analogy about getting everyone out of the pool because the water was too rough, he prorogued the legislature for good measure.

Now, he has managed to give the appearance of being driven from office twice by the same scandal. Having previously said he would stick around as an MPP until the next election, his mind was seemingly changed by the attention stemming from news that officials under his watch had illegally deleted e-mails relevant to the gas-plant mess. After a few days of dodging media, he leaked word just after the legislature rose for the summer on Tuesday that he was giving up his Ottawa South seat. That this competed with Kathleen Wynne’s attempt to celebrate her good-news story of steering the minority Liberal government past the spring was just his latest kick in the teeth of his successor.

Perhaps Mr. McGuinty had planned this exit for a while, too. Regardless, he really should have left the legislature after Ms. Wynne replaced him, at the same time as Mr. Bentley and former finance minister Dwight Duncan. It was unseemly for someone of his stature to continue nominally representing his riding and collecting a paycheque, while turning up at Queen’s Park only for a couple of votes and otherwise more or less going into hiding.

It has been a sad spectacle, and not just because of the disservice that Mr. McGuinty – who seemed, for most of his time in office, to be someone genuinely motivated by a commitment to public service – has done himself.

By the time someone reaches the highest office in the country’s largest province, his name and his image and the ideals they are supposed to represent are about more than him.

There are thousands of provincial Liberals who invested years of their lives to make Mr. McGuinty premier and help him keep that job. Some of them, who came along for a couple of years to gain government experience and then cashed in on it, were opportunists. But there were others who really believed in Mr. McGuinty, who worked long hours for less than they might have been worth, who were proud to attach their names to someone they considered a stand-up guy with his province’s best interests in mind.

There are many other Ontarians who took a lesser leap of faith in Mr. McGuinty, but still a significant one. Among the 46 per cent of voters who marked their ballots for his party in 2003, the 42 per cent in 2007 and the 38 per cent in 2011, there were at the least hundreds of thousands of people who were drawn to the basic sense that he was a decent guy who could be trusted to be upstanding.

Hopefully those people weren’t paying attention recently to Mr. McGuinty’s lowest moments in public life. Because if they were, a politician who at his better moments seemed capable of piercing the cynicism that contributes to public disengagement will instead have contributed to it.

That, in itself, seems reason enough not to be too generous toward him about now.

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