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Dalton McGuinty, an underrated politician, is tougher than he looks

October 7th, 2011 ·

By Geoffrey Stevens

You have to hand it to Dalton McGuinty. Although he does not come across as an inspirational leader of men and women, he has other qualities that earned him a third term as Premier of Ontario this week.

He is moderate, consistent, determined, resolute when he encounters obstacles, and a good deal tougher than he appears. We tend to forget how hard he had to fight to get where he is today.

First elected in Ottawa in 1990 (when the province was abandoning the Liberals for the NDP) and re-elected in 1995 (in the teeth of Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution”), he ran for the Liberal leadership in 1996, placing fourth on the first ballot. A less determined (or stubborn) politician would have thrown in the towel, but McGuinty hung in, eventually beating the populist left-Liberal Gerard Kennedy on the fifth ballot.

His early years as leader were no picnic. Many unhappy Liberals believed the party had made a grave miscalculation in choosing the relatively colourless McGuinty over the more charismatic Kennedy. To some, he appeared too weak and too indecisive to be an effective leader.

The Harris Conservatives played on that perception in the 1999 election, mounting a series of vicious attack ads proclaiming, “Dalton McGuinty – not up to the job!” After the Liberals lost that election, McGuinty had to beat back a “Dump Dalton” movement in his own ranks.

In the 2003 election – after Mike Harris had retired and was succeeded by Ernie Eves as Tory leader and premier – McGuinty was the target of one of the more bizarre attacks in the annals of Canadian politics. A Conservative press release labelled him an “evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet.”

What McGuinty, an innocuous enough fellow by most standards, had done to deserve that slagging – and what actually it meant – I have no idea, but it did not damage him. The Liberals won a majority in that election.

He won his second majority in 2007, but it was no cakewalk. The Conservatives appeared poised in the early going to make McGuinty a one-term wonder – until their new leader, John Tory, shot himself and his party in the foot with his pledge to extend public funding to faith-based schools. Handed this winning lottery ticket, McGuinty triumphed easily.

This year, with the winds of change seemingly in the air, poor dull Dalton appeared doomed.  The Progressive Conservatives, led Tim Hudak, a former Harris cabinet minister, enjoyed a seemingly insurmountable double-digit lead before the campaign began. Meanwhile, the New Democrats under a new leader Andrea Horwath, and buoyed by their success in the federal election in May, were cutting into Liberal strength on the left.

The pundits started writing McGuinty off. But wait! Politics is full of premature obituaries, from Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon to John Diefenbaker, Jean Charest and, now, Dalton McGuinty.

He did not secure the majority he wanted, but given the steep hill he was forced to climb, a strong minority government, which is what he won, is no mean achievement. McGuinty did not do it alone, of course. Just as he had help from John Tory in 2007, he had help this time from Hudak, who ran as bad a provincial campaign as I have seen in years (the 2007 Tory one excepted).

Relentlessly negative, Hudak failed to define himself and his party in the minds of voters. He offered voters various reasons to reject the Liberals without giving them reasons, other than negative ones, for embracing the PCs. Who, really, was Tim Hudak? It was clear he was no Bill Davis, but was he the second coming of Mike Harris? Even voters who are prepared to invest in change like to know what they are buying before they mark their ballot.

As long as he is careful, McGuinty should be able govern as though he has a majority. And Ontario will be led by a “reptilian kitten-eater” for a few more years.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

(published Oct 8, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

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