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Has McGuinty already doused the fire in his belly?

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks during an Ottawa news conference on Oct. 7, 2011.


Unveiling their new cabinet this week,  Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have made the same argument again and again.

The Ontario Premier, they say, won the Oct. 6 election on the strength of his promise to provide strong and steady leadership through perilous economic times. So that is what he will deliver, with a cabinet made up entirely of proven veterans.

What they are declining to mention is that there was a second pitch Mr. McGuinty made to voters – one that is looking a lot more shaky now than it did during the campaign.

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At his public events, in interviews, and especially in his weirdly frenetic debate performance, Mr. McGuinty did not just make the case for stability. He rather convincingly gave the sense that, despite eight years in office, he had plenty of fire left in his belly – that he was, in fact, more energetic and more full of ideas than either of the younger leaders running against him.

Perhaps he will yet make good on this promise, as he grapples with the province's massive economic and budgetary challenges. But it certainly wasn't evident this week, as Mr. McGuinty presented a cabinet that seemed aimed more at consolidating power than at doing much with it.

Nobody expected him to go wild, tossing trusted allies overboard and putting rookies in top portfolios. A case can be made that Deb Matthews should have been shifted from Health, since despite her competence she's allegedly resistant to major reforms; it's also a little surprising that Charles Sousa, who seemed to perform solidly at Labour, did not get something more challenging than Citizenship and Immigration. But in general, the senior appointments make sense.

Where things get more questionable is in the mid-level and junior ministries – the ones that could have been used to send a message about the need for renewal.

It's not just that Mr. McGuinty declined to put a single new face – one different perspective – at the table, though that in itself is peculiar. It's also that, while shrinking cabinet from 28 to 22 members, he declined to remove a single minister who served in the last legislative session and earned re-election this fall.

It strains credulity that Mr. McGuinty believes none of these people underperformed previously, or that every one of them is more deserving than the MPPs who remain on the outside. He just wasn't prepared to rock the boat.

Senior Liberals defend the lack of fresh blood partly on the basis that it was necessary to maintain party unity. Sure, a handful of backbenchers are disappointed they didn't get in. But if Mr. McGuinty had promoted one or two of them, the others would be much more bitter.

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That may well be. But it might not be worth the signal that has been sent beyond the caucus.

Among the Liberals' many challenges, over the next year or two, will be generating a sense of urgency within government as they try to get the province's finances onto a sustainable footing. And these cabinet appointments are not going to help get past the inertia that was intermittently evident during Mr. McGuinty's second term.

It's hard to overlook the messages sent this week that underperformance will often go unpunished, that potential will rarely be recognized, that it's time to circle the wagons. And it's equally difficult to imagine that won't have some impact both on political staff and on bureaucrats going forward.

None of this is to say that Mr. McGuinty is incapable of rediscovering the activist spirit he showed in the campaign. There are some good ministers in his cabinet, and some very deft aides in his office. He himself has proven through his career that he is not to be underestimated, and in his heart he's a policy wonk with little appetite for being idle.

But the early post-election signs are that Mr. McGuinty is reverting to the risk aversion for which he was known in his earlier years in office. Ontarians are well familiar with his personality, and perhaps that's part of what they bargained for. But it's not exactly what he sold them earlier this fall.

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