Queen’s Park Dad

A former Ontario premier looks back at his years in office.

By all objective criteria, Dalton James Patrick McGuinty Jr. enjoyed remarkable electoral success in Ontario politics. When 59 Liberal members of the provincial parliament were going down to defeat in the 1990 general election, McGuinty was the only new Liberal elected that night. Six years later, against all odds, he won the leadership of the Ontario Liberals, despite coming fourth on the first ballot, and a worse fourth on the second.

His first electoral confrontation with Premier Mike Harris in 1999 ended in defeat, after the Progressive Conservatives’ ad campaign convinced most Ontarians that McGuinty was not up to the job. In fact, in his new memoir Making a Difference, McGuinty confirms what most people had already suspected—he was not ready to be premier in 1999.

Still, he captured enough of the total vote to warrant getting a second chance. His 40 percent of the vote in a losing campaign was better than Kathleen Wynne’s 38.6 percent or Bob Rae’s 37.6 percent, both of which delivered majority governments to those two leaders.

But four years later, McGuinty was ready, and Ontarians rewarded him with two consecutive majorities and then a third victory that was just one seat short of a majority. McGuinty became the first Liberal premier in 128 years to win three straight elections. Not bad for someone who was not up to the job.

Dalton McGuinty got into politics in 1990 only because his father of the same name died while holding the provincial Liberal seat in Ottawa South. Early in his memoir, McGuinty shares the details of what must have been the worst night of his life, arriving at his parents’ home only to find his father had collapsed on the back deck. Dalton Sr. would die shortly thereafter in hospital at age 63.

A big family conference followed—there were ten McGuinty children—and the decision was made that Dalton Jr. should be the one to run to fill his father’s vacant seat. After all, as he quipped to his siblings, “We’ve already got a garage full of signs with my name on them.”

One personal theme that emerges from McGuinty’s memoir is the big price many of those in his vast family have paid, so that his career could take prominence. His long-suffering wife, Terri, never liked the harsh spotlight of a political life, and yet whatever plans she had for their lives together always took a back seat to her husband’s career.

Furthermore, some of the McGuinty siblings would like to have gone further in politics themselves, but did not or could not because politics just could not accommodate more than one McGuinty star, and the star was always Dalton. Yes, his brother David has been the member of Parliament for Ottawa South since 2004, but he declined to run for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party despite kicking the tires twice. And when the Liberals returned to power last October, the younger McGuinty did not make cabinet, despite lobbying from his older brother. The book is silent on this price paid by his siblings, but when Dalton McGuinty appeared on The Agenda on TVO to promote his book, I asked him how he repays that debt to the rest of his family. “You can’t,” he said. “You’re just grateful.”

McGuinty became a skilled and disciplined campaigner, but he also got very lucky. In 2003, voters were increasingly tired of the Conservatives’ Common Sense Revolution. McGuinty’s softer touch, promising to rebuild Ontario’s health and education services and bring labour peace to the province, was a welcome respite from nearly a decade of constant turmoil.

In 2007, the premier was tied in the polls with his Progressive Conservative counterpart four months before election day. Then, PC leader John Tory (now the mayor of Toronto) unveiled a plan to provide public funds to faith-based schools. The polls then began to diverge as voters became disenchanted with what has often been a toxic mix of politics, religion and education in Ontario. The Tories’ self-inflicted wound allowed McGuinty to win again, despite breaking his single-most discussed promise not to raise taxes.

And in 2011, he won his third straight election when the Conservatives, now under Tim Hudak, over-reached on wedge issues such as excoriating “foreign workers” and promoting chain gangs.

Before Justin Trudeau’s reprise of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s “sunny ways,” it was Dalton McGuinty who reminded Ontarians that they could do more if they went “forward together.” Whether as a backbench MPP, opposition leader, or premier, McGuinty just never came across as a vicious partisan. (Mind you, he left that dirty work to some of his colleagues, who never had a problem attacking Tories.) As a result, McGuinty’s memoir is remarkably free from settling old scores. He does allow that he never did have a good relationship with Stephen Harper, despite repeated efforts to connect with him. When Harper lost the 2004 election, McGuinty writes that he called the Conservative leader to thank him for running and to remind him of the valuable experience he had just gained, even while losing. Harper, McGuinty tells us, was in no mood to speak.

Then, after Harper got to the top of the mountain in 2006, McGuinty writes that “Harper would never allow me to forget that he was the prime minister and I was just a premier. That hierarchical distinction was always front and centre. As was his partisanship. It had a stranglehold on him.”

Surprisingly, McGuinty reveals that his relationship with one of his toughest opponents has mellowed over the intervening years. While the Tories tried to frame McGuinty as a not-ready-for-prime-time loser during the 1999 campaign, McGuinty tells us that when he called Harris on election night to concede, the premier surprised him with his comments.

“Hang in there,” the 22nd premier told the opposition leader. “I know what it’s like.” In fact, Harris had also lost his first campaign as leader. After both men were out of public life, these former foes actually got together for a beer, which was an unusual development for two men whose enmity occasionally got very personal during their time together in politics.

Despite McGuinty’s electoral success, he did accumulate more and more barnacles during his 23 years in politics. By the time he left in 2013, his government was mired in numerous scandals, some of which he tackles in the memoirs, others of which he gives scant reference.

The province’s air ambulance system—ORNGE—became the personal fiefdom of a rogue emergency room doctor. Patients died because of a lack of oversight. Efforts to digitize patients’ records through a new e-health agency always seemed to fail, costing hundreds of millions of wasted dollars. And, of course, the granddaddy of McGuinty’s sins was his cancelling the contract for a gas-fired electricity generation station in Mississauga in the dying days of the 2011 election campaign. McGuinty does not allow for the possibility that people might have interpreted that as a last-ditch attempt to save seats in the western Greater Toronto Area. He confesses he should have been more on top of that file, and should not have publicized the $40 million contract cancellation price tag, which became an enormous embarrassment when the auditor general later estimated the cost at $1 billion. But McGuinty critics will be disappointed that there is still no apology for the gas plant debacle—something Kathleen Wynne did eleven times on The Agenda despite not making the cancellation decision herself. Nor is there any reference to the scrubbing of computer hard drives in the premier’s office, which took place after McGuinty’s departure, and which led to a police investigation.

Naturally, Making a Difference is Dalton McGuinty’s book and so he is entitled to tell the story he wants. For a man who has lived much of his life in public, McGuinty is a relatively private person who drew indelible lines between his family and his political “friends.” So it is perhaps not surprising that the book does not delve deeply into some issues about which the reader may have wanted more insight.

But as a Queen’s Park watcher for more than three decades, I have to confess some disappointment as to what was not in the book. McGuinty was fortunate to have been surrounded by some top-notch advisors throughout his premiership, but they barely make even cameo appearances in this memoir. For example, Gerald Butts, his chief policy advisor and close confidant, whose influence in helping make Justin Trudeau prime minister cannot be overstated, rates barely a mention. The same applies to former principal secretary Jameson Steeve, the “keeper of the flame” in McGuinty’s premier’s office, and other key operatives as well. None of them has complained to me about the exclusion. But whatever influence, advice or role they played in McGuinty’s success presumably remains between them and their former boss.

Furthermore, McGuinty barely lets us in on the grand debates that must have happened behind closed doors. How did he determine which ministers ended up in which cabinet portfolios? Who performed well for him and who disappointed him? Why did he fire two cabinet stalwarts, Monte Kwinter and David Ramsay, neither of whom is even mentioned in the book? And what about Michael Bryant, his attorney general, who was at the centre of a tragic traffic fatality while simultaneously fighting his own personal demons of alcoholism? Both revelations, which occupied so much bandwidth when they became public, are dealt with in half a paragraph in McGuinty’s memoir.

What was his relationship like with his successor? I know from my own reporting that the 24th and 25th premiers of Ontario get on just fine in public, but that many of Wynne’s allies think McGuinty passed along a poisoned chalice to her. None of this is addressed in the book. Nor is McGuinty’s preference as to who might succeed him, other than to say he would have been content with either Wynne or Sandra Pupatello, the two candidates on the final ballot—although I suppose we can forgive him for that one. It is rare for departing leaders to express a preference on succession.

Similarly, we do not learn anything about why McGuinty chose David Livingston, the highly regarded head of Infrastructure Ontario, to be his chief of staff during his final mandate. Those were minority parliament years and having a skilled, political veteran as chief of staff surely ought to have been a priority. Instead, McGuinty chose Livingston, an able public servant with experience in the banking sector, but someone with political antennae that just, to borrow an expression, were not up to the job.

It is probably no coincidence that McGuinty’s biggest political headaches came after the departure of some of his experienced political hands, who were replaced by those with no history of managing a minority parliament.

These criticisms point to the fact that I wish the book were longer. At 240 pages, the memoir is a relatively brisk recitation of the McGuinty years, which were extremely consequential. It was this premier who can take credit for closing all of the province’s coal-fired electricity-generating stations, who led the implementation of full-day kindergarten despite its high price tag, who hired thousands of new teachers to improve students’ educational experiences, who secured 1.8 million acres of Greenbelt in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, making it one of the largest and most successful environmental initiatives in history, and who had the guts to potentially commit political suicide by raising taxes when he swore he would not to rebuild Ontario’s health and education systems, then raised them again after deciding to harmonize the provincial and federal sales taxes.

Some of his decisions were extraordinarily controversial. He stands by his Green Energy Act, which the auditor general estimates gave Ontarians an extra $37 billion in electricity costs from 2006 to 2014. McGuinty can live with the criticisms because he is convinced in the long run, history will vindicate his decision to “pick a lane” and double down on green energy. Where he clearly erred, such as with the gas plant fiasco, McGuinty owns up to it and takes responsibility for getting it wrong, even if an outright apology remains elusive.

“I should have been on top of these issues much sooner,” he writes. “It was a mistake for me to delegate decisions to locate gas plants to the energy experts … I take full responsibility for this failing and I deeply regret this.”

In addition, I would have loved him to peel back the curtain much more on the failed negotiations with Ontario’s teacher unions. McGuinty always wanted to be known as the “education premier,” and much of his legacy in that sector is enviable. But once the province’s fiscal capacity went south during the Great Recession, McGuinty unveiled the government’s need to claw back many previously negotiated teacher benefits in a YouTube video. The negotiations were disastrous and hosannas quickly turned into brickbats from the thousands of teachers the premier had previously successfully wooed. A former McGuinty insider whom I shall leave unnamed read the book and concluded: “He should have broken a few more eggs so we could have learned more about what really goes on behind the curtain. But Dalton is too nice a guy to go there.”

What does come through in the end is, despite it all, McGuinty still believes in politics. It is clearly not an enterprise for the faint of heart, he adds, but part of his reasoning for writing the book is to show young people the possibilities of politics.

And you have to hand it to him. For an often awkward, introverted guy from Ottawa, McGuinty grew in the job and eventually became “Premier Dad.” He retired in 2013 as the sixth longest-serving premier of Ontario ever, just two days shy of John Robarts’s fifth-place finish. Perhaps, as the numbers indicate, it was meant to be. McGuinty is the sixth longest-serving premier, from a family of twelve. He was Ontario’s 24th premier, elected at age 48.

It is a small indication that even after 23 years in public life, Dalton McGuinty remains a remarkably grounded, decent fellow who had a good run in politics, and tells some of that story well in his memoir. The McGuinty haters, who are always very easy to find on social media, will have to ask themselves how a politician they despise so much managed to hold the second-toughest political job in the country for nine years and 111 days.

Despite one of the rockiest departures from politics, they may have to acknowledge that Dalton James Patrick McGuinty Jr. was simply a better politician than they think, but also maybe too nice to write a more revealing memoir.