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For the last year and a half, Dalton McGuinty has been a virtual spectre.

Between stepping down as premier in early 2013 and resigning his seat that summer, he showed his face in the legislature just twice. He never spoke, ghosting out by a back passage to avoid the throng gathered outside.

His only other appearances at Queen's Park were made to testify at a legislative committee probing the billion-dollar cancellation of gas-fired power plants, the scandal that helped drive him from office.

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On the campaign trail this spring, he made not a single appearance, and his own party strenuously avoided speaking his name.

The consensus among most Liberals loyal to Premier Kathleen Wynne was that his final term had been a mess – besides the gas plant scandal, Mr. McGuinty had alienated vast swathes of the electorate with his aggressive spending cuts in pursuit of a balanced budget – and the party needed some distance.

At this week's Throne Speech, by contrast, he got the treatment of an elder statesman. Ms. Wynne welcomed him with a warm embrace. He was seated in the second row on the assembly floor. During breaks in the ceremonies, he chatted amiably with Ms. Wynne's principal secretary, Andrew Bevan, who sat next to him.

And when it was all done, he strode confidently out the front doors of the chamber, stopping for a lengthy scrum with reporters and a half-hour of glad-handing with the crowd.

Yes, the change in tone was a sign of the Liberals' restored confidence, secure enough in their new majority they could bring Mr. McGuinty back into the public eye.

But more than that, it reflected the party's complicated relationship with the man who led them to three consecutive election victories.

While Ms. Wynne and her circle have been eager to redefine the party to some extent – and Mr. McGuinty has done them a solid by making himself scarce over the last year – they are wary of distancing themselves too much, or being seen to have thrown Mr. McGuinty under the bus.

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In part this is the reaction of a party still smarting from the nasty split between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin on the federal level a decade ago. Mr. Martin's decision to disown his predecessor when he inherited the party was divisive and dispiriting and, at least in Liberal lore, part of the reason the Grits have been consigned to the wilderness for nearly a decade.

Partly, Ms. Wynne's kind treatment of Mr. McGuinty is a reflection of her own persona. She values her reputation as a conciliator, and would not want to be seen as the sort of cold, calculating politician who discards her former boss when he becomes a liability.

The most important reason, however, is that today's Liberal Party is still an awful lot like the one Mr. McGuinty led.

Some key figures from the McGuinty era are still around: Brad Duguid, the cabinet minister who had to carry out Mr. McGuinty's decision to cancel the gas plants, has taken a senior role under Ms. Wynne as her point man on job creation. And former McGuinty aide Gerald Butts, now principal adviser to federal leader Justin Trudeau, was available to the party during the election. According to a senior Liberal insider, he took part in at least one crucial strategy session near the end of the campaign.

And while Mr. McGuinty is often constructed as a bland figure of the centre and Ms. Wynne as an energetic leftist, their pitches to voters are essentially the same: I am a safe, competent leader who will protect and improve services while still being friendly with business. The mix of suburban moderates and urban leftists who rallied around Ms. Wynne to stop the Progressive Conservatives' right-wing agenda is little changed from the group that delivered Mr. McGuinty his victories.

Even Ms. Wynne acknowledged that the central agenda of her premiership is little changed from Mr. McGuinty's.

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"The plan that we're putting forward builds on the work that I did — that we did — under his leadership when he was premier," she said after the Throne Speech, pronouncing herself "very happy" that Mr. McGuinty attended.

He returned the favour, telling reporters that he is "very proud of my party, proud of my premier."

What neither of them pointed out was that the very task that nearly caused Mr. McGuinty to destroy his party's electoral coalition – how to cut spending and erase red ink without slashing services – is now the primary problem confronting Ms. Wynne.

No doubt it just felt good, to both of them, that he can step out of the shadows.

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