TORONTO – Following a tribute from his party, an emotional Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said his final goodbyes at the convention that will choose his successor on Saturday.
Surrounded by his large family, Canada’s longest-serving current premier thanked the Ontario Liberals for sticking by him through the good and bad, the years in opposition to their third straight election victory in 2011 – a feat the party had not accomplished in more than a century.
“You and I are now family,” he told a packed Toronto convention hall on Friday night.
“But don’t expect me to remember your birthdays,” he joked. “Just what a McGuinty needs – more family.”
Family was a common refrain in his speech, the final act in an hour-long, humorous tribute hosted by his daughter Carleen and son Dalton Jr., filled with home movies of the massive McGuinty clan over the years.
The “Premier Dad” moniker actually came from the man himself, his son said, not from reporters remarking on penchant for bans on pitbulls to pesticides.
During a particularly frustrating round of golf shortly after becoming premier, Darlon Jr. told his father that he’d reached his limit on do-overs.
McGuinty kept his cool, Dalton Jr. recalled.
“And he said, ‘As long as I’m paying for everyone’s golf, I think I’ll take as many mulligans as I like. And by the way, that’s Premier Dad to you.'”
When McGuinty later took the podium, he delivered a heartfelt thanks to his family and wife Terri, an elementary school teacher who raised four young children in Ottawa as the wife of a rookie MPP.
“You gave me the strength I needed by making our home a place where premiers and politics count for nothing, but where being a dad and a husband counted for everything,” he said.
Growing up in Ottawa as the eldest son in a large Catholic family, he helped his busy parents care for his nine younger siblings. He worked odd jobs through high school to help out, from hospital orderly to a counsellor at his father’s summer camp.
As premier, McGuinty would often draw from his childhood to impart a political lesson about the responsibilities of leadership.
He did so again Friday night, saying his desire to “to do good for others” was a result of the good things his parents did for him through hard work and sacrifice.
He jumped into politics 22 years ago after his father Dalton Sr., an English professor and provincial politician, died suddenly while shovelling snow.
“My only regret is that my dad never saw me enter public life,” McGuinty said.
Love for their children and families is what drives people to want to build a brighter future for the province, from better schools and health care, cleaner air, new jobs and a better trained workforce, he said.
It is “exacting, imperfect work,” McGuinty said.
“We can be proud we got the big things right while seeing with clear eyes there’s still much more to do.”
McGuinty delivered his swan song at the former Maple Leaf Gardens, the same spot where he managed an upset victory to become leader of the party despite finishing fourth in the first two ballots.
His uncanny ability to beat the odds became a common theme for the so-called “accidental premier” over the course of his career.
When he first arrived at the Ontario legislature in 1990, the awkward lawyer was a far cry from the polished politician he is today. It took seven gruelling years in opposition – and one election defeat – before McGuinty led the Liberals to victory in 2003.
Along the way, he honed a political style that saw the governing party through many of the obstacles they faced over the last nine years.
“Never too high, never too low” was McGuinty’s mantra, an extension of his straight-laced, father-knows-best image.
Time and time again, people told him that it couldn’t be done – that he couldn’t win a seat as a Liberal, that he couldn’t win the leadership, that he couldn’t win the election, he once remarked. Yet he managed to do all three.
But he surprised everyone in October, when he decided to step down amid a series of scandals that seemed insurmountable, even for him.
He’d alienated a powerful ally he’d courted for years – Ontario’s public school teachers – by forcing a pay freeze to reduce the province’s massive deficit. The unions declared war, vowing to withdraw their financial support and use their organizational might to defeat the self-described “education premier” in the next election.
They made good on their threat in a Sept. 6 byelection McGuinty orchestrated in an effort to win the one seat he needed to regain a majority government, putting boots on the ground in Kitchener-Waterloo to elect a New Democrat for the first time in the riding’s history.
Adding to his troubles was a rare contempt motion over the cancellation of two gas plants in Liberal ridings – at a cost to taxpayers of at least $230 million – and a criminal probe of the province’s Ornge air ambulance service.
By tendering his resignation and shutting down the legislature, the 57-year-old premier bought time for his party to elect a new leader, mend its relationship with the unions and wipe the slate clean on the contempt motion.
McGuinty has defended his record, pointing out that he’s leaving the province with better schools and health care, and an economy that’s starting to get back on its feet.
But what McGuinty called progress also carried a heavy price, as government spending more than doubled and the red ink began to flow.
McGuinty has left a very strong legacy, said former Liberal premier David Peterson. He got the province’s biggest responsibilities – health care, education and the economy – right.
“He’s faced enormous challenges,” he said. “He’s survived in a very volatile period. He’s brought a decency to public life.”
“Yeah, there are barnacles on the ship of state, but there are barnacles on anybody’s ship of state.”
McGuinty has said he plans to stay on as the MPP for Ottawa-South until the next election, but hasn’t given much thought to what he might do next.
As for how he will be remembered, McGuinty said he’ll leave it to others to decide, that he’s simply grateful for having the opportunity to serve his province.
Whether the embattled Liberals can beat the odds once again without their longtime leader is another chapter for the history books that has yet to be written.