Harold Wilson famously said that “a week is a long time in politics.” In the world we’re in now, it’s way shorter than that.
Dalton McGuinty’s decision to step down from the Premiership of Ontario was one made by him, on his own time. He did not speculate out loud about it. Advisers and pundits were not heard opining on the pros and cons. He just did it. On this most personal of decisions he kept his own counsel, and changed the game in his own way.
Dalton McGuinty’s dad was in the legislature before him, and he was a man of great passion and fire. He would quote Yeats in late night debates and was a friend to many across the aisle, including me. Like many who first met his son, I thought he was a decent, thoughtful man, but without the full range of his father.
But I was wrong. The Dalton McGuinty who quietly kept his counsel and went about his business when first elected an M.P.P. in 1990 (a year I remember well for some reason) was used to being underestimated. But he is ample proof that discipline counts for much in life, and that there is no substitute for dogged persistence in the achievement of one’s goals. He exercises every day, he learns his craft by watching others, he listens well and has become the exemplar of what focus and organization can bring to political success.
Coming from a large family, he knows who he is, where he comes from, where he’s going. He can be stubborn, but also knows when to relent.
My own closest dealings with him were when I worked on higher education issues for the province in his first mandate. I told him I would only work on the review if I could talk to him regularly, and if he was committed to doing something. He agreed, we met frequently, and he did was he said. I enjoyed that project as much as any I’ve worked on since. The province made the largest new investment in higher education since the 1960s. Those were matched by his commitment to early childhood education, smaller class sizes and better results for Ontario students.
He had the good fortune of a growing economy, and the sharp contrast with his predecessors, to help put wind in his sails. But something about his determination and focus helped far more, and took him to re-election in 2007, and again four years later, albeit a “a major minority.” As Jack Nicklaus once said of Tiger Woods: “he played a game with which I’m not familiar.”
There will be much talk of legacy. I suspect one of the things that has troubled the Premier most has been that his great successes in public education could be threatened by rancour in public sector union disputes. He wants to return to the table, and that is a wise decision. The unions would be equally wise to take him up on the offer. A negotiated result is always the preferred outcome. But fiscal discipline has to be a shared goal for the whole province.
Similarly, making the legislature work can only happen if there’s a political will to do it. By taking himself out of the game Premier McGuinty has challenged the opposition parties to rise to the occasion. Whether they will do so only time can tell.
Premier McGuinty’s decision is wise from many perspectives. It is better to leave on your own terms and timing. He has left with some remarkable achievements in education and health, and as a respected voice in the federation. It is not given to everyone in politics to leave on those terms.
Anyone can sail in good weather, and Dalton McGuinty has had his share of storms. He took his share of responsibility and has not been afraid to admit mistakes. These are admirable qualities, which others would be wise to emulate. Governing a province through economic turmoil and recession is not easy, but the Premier has worn it well. He can leave with his head high, knowing that a life of service can continue in many other ways.
Bob Rae, the MP for Toronto Centre, is the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He was premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995 and leader of the Ontario NDP.
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