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Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty shakes hands with supporters as he leaves election night headquarters in Ottawa, Thursday October 6, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty shakes hands with supporters as he leaves election night headquarters in Ottawa, Thursday October 6, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

McGuinty's treacherous path: Where party line meets compromise Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty has long presented himself as someone who can bring people together in a sense of common purpose.

He’ll now face his biggest test yet on that front.

About to go down a treacherous path together, Ontarians have proven divided about who they want to lead them, and where exactly they want to go.

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In a remarkable political comeback, Mr. McGuinty won back the trust of urban and suburban voters in Thursday’s provincial election, enough to give him a third straight term in the Premier’s office. But with 53 seats, one shy of a majority government, he will have to contend with a much weaker mandate – because the rest of the province turned away from him.

What appealed to voters in the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa and a handful of other cities – a message that the province is on the right track and can’t afford to take the risk on an untested premier – found a less receptive audience in Northern and rural ridings. There, the opposition’s message that Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals are out of touch and beholden to downtown elites resonated with the electorate – as did the effort by Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to reinvigorate his party’s traditional base.

No issue epitomized this break more than Mr. McGuinty’s green-energy policy, a centrepiece of his economic plan for the province. It might well have been a positive selling point among urbanites and suburbanites; at worst, they were indifferent to it. But it almost certainly played a part in sweeping the Liberals – including John Wilkinson, the erstwhile environment minister – out of rural Eastern and Southwestern Ontario.

The question now is whether, on that and other fronts, Mr. McGuinty will press forward, or feel compelled to compromise.

To some extent, the Liberals will likely govern as though they have a majority. Assuming the current seat count holds, they may go so far as to try to elect an opposition MPP as Speaker of the legislature, in which case the other two parties would no longer have more combined votes. And even if not, neither Mr. Hudak nor NDP Leader Andrea Horwath sounded on election night as though they have much intention of bringing the government down any time soon.

But there is still a chance of Mr. McGuinty getting bogged down in brokerage politics – either softening his own policies, or throwing out sops in return for opposition votes. And he may not have much inclination to tackle really tough decisions, which could give the opposition parties a chance to gang up on him.

That’s an alarming possibility, because those challenges – including managing the province’s already perilous finances at a time of economic turmoil – are waiting to be tackled.

Within months, a government commission headed by former bank economist Don Drummond will provide recommendations for changing delivery of public services. Although all in the name of ensuring those services’ long-term stability, implementing even some of those proposals would inevitably involve some controversy.

In those and other decisions, Mr. McGuinty can ill afford to show weakness – not least because of which other leaders will be watching him. A big part of his campaign pitch was standing up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper during negotiations toward a new federal-provincial health accord; he can ill afford to look weak while doing so.

In other words, it’s gut-check time for Mr. McGuinty. Does he want this third term – very likely his last one – just to be a victory lap, or does he want to do something more with it?

The manner in which he resurrected his political fortunes suggests that he might have the energy to take some risks. Once rather credibly accused by his opponents of being tired and out of gas, he rebounded largely because he was able to project a sense of hunger and determination. In speeches, in interviews, even in his slightly manic performance in the leaders debate, he positioned himself as an activist who’s ready and willing to overhaul the province’s economy.

It would be no small feat, carrying over that energy without further dividing his province. But having proved himself one of the most formidable campaigners his province has seen, he will now have to demonstrate if he’s one of its most formidable premiers as well.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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