Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's mysterious legacy

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An aura of mystery hovers around Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. There's two words I doubt you ever expected to hear together (the ones starting with M). Is it possible he needs an intervention? Not a high-rent one like the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan: a trashy intervention like you see on reality TV. He did say he needs a hug. Is that a cry for help or what?

For the first time in his political career, McGuinty has become humanly interesting because he's indecipherable. In the past he was politically interesting -- for standing almost alone against the neo-con tide of his times, but personally uncomplicated. Now he's taken all he stood for and could feel pride in: strong public schools, a positive role for government, political support he built -- among teachers especially -- and trashed it for no evident reason. Then he resigned, losing any chance he had to salvage the mess he made.

The mystery is why he was willing to torpedo everything he stood for. Not just his "legacy," which may be a journalistic flourish, but the goals he seemed to be in it for from the start. On Wednesday, when GM betrayed Ontario autoworkers, Stephen Harper got to look like the one who cared. That's a big lump of coal in the McGuinty stocking.

It's so peculiar that it's elicited almost no comment, more an embarrassed silence, aside from some mentions that he hasn't explained his reasons yet. Now, motives don't necessarily matter, and in politics they rarely do. Still, people feel compelled to pursue them. (In the Newtown massacre, the motive doesn't matter at all. But cops and reporters keep looking for the "why" as if it's an episode of Criminal Minds, where profilers can save the final victim if they reconstruct the reasons.) So here's some speculation.

First, consider possible rational roots. For instance:

Did the premier buy some used advice from a U.S. political consultant? All our parties do. It's the Canadian way. Five years ago, Ontario Liberals hired a Chicago strategist named David Axelrod who defected to an ambitious Illinois senator named Obama. Did a consultant say: Go right, everyone else is, promise to slash spending, voters resent well-paid civil servants so attack teachers -- So Dalton tells the teachers: Sorry but you're going to have to accept a two-year wage freeze. The teachers' unions answer: OK, we accept a two-year wage freeze. Dalton stays on script and replies: Sorry, that's unacceptable, you have to take a two-year wage freeze. After a while of this, voters notice it's weird and anyway, if you want New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (I love teachers but I hate their unions), we've already got Tim Hudak. It was the worst possible advice at the wrong time but that's what U.S. political consultants get paid for here. It's the same advice federal Liberal leadership candidates seem to be getting.

And why resign when it flops? The situation wasn't hopeless. He still had a near majority. And he didn't seem like a guy who'd prefer collecting corporate directorships to governing, like some former premiers. He was all about rectitude and public service. It's like his implausible badass attack on unions. If it's not your game, Dalton, don't play it. But then, did he have a personal crisis? A mid-life crisis for premier … dad? Is he breaking … bad? We'll likely never know but when it all makes so little sense, we're allowed to consider alternatives.

The strangest, most unexpected event in Ontario political history may have been the suicide of former Tory premier John Robarts, who'd had every possible success. We're deceived by the lucid, rational façade, by the facts we wear clothes and eat with cutlery, into thinking we're not essentially primitive creatures whose conscious calculations are generally a fraction of what motivates us.

I'm content to leave it shrouded in mystery, especially at this darkening time of year. It restores faith in the unknown and unknowable. It's usually more valuable to raise challenging questions than receive satisfying answers. Perplexity trumps punditry, plus it keeps life entertaining and intriguing. So unto us another mystery is born: the star of Bethlehem, the oil that burned for eight days, the gift of the McGinti …

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Gord Fynes/Flickr

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