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Globe & Mail December 28 2000, Thur. - by John Ibbitson

McGuinty starting to look like a contender

For the first time in four years, it is possible to imagine Dalton McGuinty and his Ontario Liberals governing Ontario. That doesn't mean they will govern, or even should, only that they could. But "could" is a big first step. Ever since he inherited the wreckage of the Liberal Party in 1996, Mr. McGuinty has been the plaything of the Ontario Conservatives.

First it was Premier Mike Harris slicing and dicing the perceptibly frightened Mr. McGuinty in Question Period. Then it was the Tory advertising machine, with its pre-election ads that made the Liberal Leader look like a doofus. Then came the election, when the governing party outspent, outperformed and outmanoeuvred the Official Opposition every single day of the campaign.

The real wonder is that the Liberals nonetheless picked up 40 per cent of the vote in 1999, which usually gets you a majority government. The Tories pulled in 45 per cent, however, and that was that.

So is there anything to suggest that the Liberals might be able to swing at least 3 per cent of the vote away from the Tories next time out? The tentative answer is yes.

The Harris Conservatives have been afflicted with several chickens-coming-home-to-roost scandals in the past year. Their rush to sell off government real estate led to revelations of bungling and possible fraud within the Ontario Realty Corp. Their hasty offloading of responsibilities onto municipalities may have contributed to the tainted-water tragedy in Walkerton.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have grown in confidence and strength. Mr. McGuinty, his leadership secure, has relaxed and matured, his public presence more confident, the wooden stick that seems to hold his back rigid whenever a camera is on him becoming more supple.

The Liberals also gained praise from teachers and trustees, this month, when they proposed legislation to end the chronic warfare in the schools. Their solution would leave the Conservative reforms essentially in place, while greasing the wheels of labour peace with some rejigged classroom times and a modest injection of extra money.

Tinkering and cash injections may be the Liberal solution to all of the challenges confronting the Ontario government: worsening homelessness in the cities, fears of environmental degradation, chronic waiting lists in health care.

But that is an old box, and it is dispiriting to imagine the party is unable to think outside it. The bright lights within caucus are hoping that a major policy forum planned for March will generate less conventional and more exciting alternatives. The question is whether Mr. McGuinty has the courage to embrace truly radical suggestions for change.

Could the Liberals actually accept the notion of greater private-sector participation in the health sector?

Could they mix a tougher take-back-the-streets ingredient into their traditional demands for more housing for the homeless?

Would they be willing to devolve real power to individual school administrations and parents' councils, bypassing school boards altogether? Intelligent analysts of all political stripes are pondering these paradigms as possible next-generation approaches to social policy. Either the Tories or the Liberals will eventually take ownership of them. The only question is who gets there first.

The Liberal Leader might, of course, simply wait and hope the government self-destructs.

Waiting is what Ontario Liberals do best. It is why they have won two elections in the past 63 years.

The new year offers the Liberal Party its best chance in a decade to present itself as a government-in-waiting.

But we still do not know whether its leader has the strength of will and character to ride the curl of the political wave, and surf it to victory in 2003. All of which could make Dalton McGuinty the most interesting Ontario political figure to watch over the next 12 months.


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