Every government has a natural lifespan. And Dalton McGuinty’s expired some time ago.
A year ago, the Ontario Premier won an election many expected him to lose. It was an impressive achievement that could be chalked up partly to his skills as a campaigner, and partly to the weakness of his opponents. But the Liberals’ euphoria over winning a third term soon gave way to the clear impression that they didn’t know what to do with it.
Whatever the other factors might have been behind Monday’s sudden announcement of his resignation – from dodging a scandal over power-plant construction to contemplating a federal leadership run – it was a tacit acknowledgment that his stewardship of the province had run its course.
Since last October, Mr. McGuinty had been in an unenviable position. After eight years of majority government, he was saddled with an unwieldy minority. He faced an exodus of much of his senior staff, who had been ready to go before the election and stuck around to see it through. Their replacements were almost instantly saddled with an excess of baggage, including but not limited to the power-plant mess, which made it hard for them to find their feet.
Hardest of all, though, Mr. McGuinty was trying to perform a personal reinvention.
For the better part of two terms, he was “Premier Dad.” The term was initially coined by detractors to mock his propensity for nannyism, but some Liberals came to see it as a descriptor of his earnest faith in the do-good potential of public education and other government programs. Then a huge deficit compelled him to shift toward an austerity agenda, including war with erstwhile allies in the provincial teachers’ unions.
Mr. McGuinty gamely tried to frame this as a way of preserving the social programs he had invested so much in, but it was an uncomfortable fit with his persona and with the Liberal brand he had built. And any hope he had of putting forward a coherent agenda, let alone pulling off the political transition, was eroded by the constant need to play defence against opposition complaints about past sins.
Among the Premier’s more endearing qualities, evidenced in the way he bounced back from his dismal first campaign as leader back in 1999 to enjoy such success, is that he never seems to be the quitting type. So for all the trouble he’s had lately, Monday night’s announcement still came as a considerable surprise.
There was never a great deal of pressure on Mr. McGuinty from within his own party to step aside – partly because of gratitude for his electoral success, and partly because there were no obvious successors. Recently, though, some veteran Liberals were freely speculating that their only hope of winning another term might be a fresh start under someone else.
That argument may ultimately have prevailed on him. And those close to him suggested recently that he was also bothered by what he recently saw in Ontario’s neighbouring province, where his contemporary Jean Charest stuck around one election too long and went down to defeat.
If Mr. McGuinty was spared the ignominy of having to deliver a concession speech to end a long and successful career, though, he still has cause to regret the circumstances of his departure.
Even many of his detractors have long conceded his basic decency – that he is, if nothing else, a standup guy. That he’s now making his exit a year into his term, while proroguing the legislature just as the opposition parties are pursuing a contempt charge against one of his ministers, will cast a cloud over his legacy for the next while.
With time, Mr. McGuinty will be remembered more for the record that predated the final stretch, and for his remarkable political success. But those who watched these grim past few months will also recall that he was a little too politically successful for his own good.