Dalton McGuinty had evidently had enough sentimentality for one week.
On Tuesday night, the Ontario Premier spent hours in the provincial legislature listening to emotional tributes to 13 MPPs who won’t seek re-election on Oct. 6. His extended presence was a gracious gesture, and his Liberals were quick to point out the contrast with Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak’s absence.
But on Wednesday, Mr. McGuinty pulled the rug out from most everyone at Queen’s Park. The legislature, his office announced with just a couple hours’ notice, would be prorogued – abruptly shutting down its final pre-election sitting a day earlier than had been expected.
If this was the last week in which Mr. McGuinty will enter the House as Premier – and the polls suggest that’s a very good possibility – it was weirdly anticlimactic. But perhaps that was only fitting, given his persona.
Mr. McGuinty is generally regarded, even by his opponents, as a very nice guy. And he has what seems, on paper, to be a pretty good story – an underdog widely written off after his first, disastrous election as Leader, who dusted himself off and emerged as the most successful Ontario Liberal since the Second World War. Plus there’s the whole business about growing up in a civic-minded family of 10 kids, marrying his high-school sweetheart, and then stumbling into politics when his MPP father dropped dead shovelling the snow.
But for all his basic decency, Ontarians have never entirely warmed to him. Even in happier times – when the economy was strong, and the province’s finances were in surplus and the Liberals were well ahead in the polls – Mr. McGuinty was regarded with acceptance but rarely with great affection.
Even within his own party, he can struggle to connect. Those who work directly for Mr. McGuinty tend to revere him, because he treats them well and because – unlike many politicians – he doesn’t have a whole lot of warts when you see him up close. But while backbenchers and assorted other foot soldiers almost uniformly say nice things about him publicly, there's a certain coolness.
Much of that owes to his aloofness. Mr. McGuinty, by most accounts, is broadly interested in helping people - in improving health care and education and quality-of-life. But he has trouble relating to most people individually. And that’s been accentuated during his time running the government, which is an inherently strange and insulated existence.
Mr. McGuinty also lacks a flair for the dramatic. This, in some ways, has served him well – initially helping maintain a welcome sense of calm after the turbulent Mike Harris-Ernie Eves years. But even when he has undertaken ambitious and in some cases controversial policies, his demeanour can project a certain complacency – a potential liability amid Ontario's postrecession struggles, when a sense of urgency might be needed.
The strange ending of the province's 39th Parliament in some ways epitomized both of these characteristics. Mr. McGuinty evidently did not understand, or was not especially fussed, that the final day meant a lot to some of his colleagues, not to mention the assorted legislative staff and media who populate the building. And he opted not to seize the moment himself; nobody will remember what might have been his last moments in the legislature before he puts himself back before voters, because nobody realized that's what they were until they were over. If this was an opportunity to capture anyone's imagination, he wasn't interested.
Of course, Mr. McGuinty hopes there was nothing historic about this week; that he will be back in the same chair later this year. And certainly, most Ontarians don't pay close enough attention to the day-to-day machinations of Queen's Park for the prorogation to have any serious bearing on his re-election prospects, especially since it was hardly up there with the gravest sins against our democratic institutions.
But even if he leads his party to a third straight majority, what happened on Wednesday explained in some small way the coolness toward him. And if he's defeated, the retrospective symbolism will be hard to miss.