TORONTO – Never too low, never too high.
They’re words Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty lives by – a play on former premier Bill Davis’s motto “bland works.”
And it’s a mantra that has proven successful for McGuinty, who has ridden his straitlaced, father-knows-best image to back-to-back majority governments and will be looking to secure a fairly rare third straight term in the premier’s office this fall.
While he has taken criticism for his low-key approach, those who know McGuinty best say it’s authentic and he’s made it work in his favour.
“I think because people don’t see the highs and lows, there’s been that tendency to underestimate him, which he’s used to his advantage,” said Matt Maychak, a former journalist who worked closely with McGuinty for a decade starting in the mid-1990s.
“There’s a very competitive person under the surface that makes him keep going and keep running, but pretty much what you see is what you get.”
Maychak says the Liberal leader rarely shows anger, and was relatively composed even after the 1999 election campaign that saw Mike Harris lead the Progressive Conservatives to a second majority.
“I think he was deeply disappointed and expressed some anger that I didn’t see, but I heard about, and that lasted five minutes, and then it was ‘OK, what do I need to do now,”’ said Maychak. “He’s really unusual that way.”
But critics have argued the 56-year-old McGuinty is too focused on trying to protect people from themselves, banning everything from pesticides and talking on the phone while driving to smoking in cars with kids. It’s a knock that has earned him the label ”Premier Dad.“
His supporters say there is some truth in the moniker, but in the positive sense of a caring, compassionate leader who wants only the best for his family and his province.
McGuinty himself says he doesn’t give much thought to labels that are manufactured to serve political purposes, but he doesn’t shy away from the nickname either.
“If by dad they mean somebody who is prepared to take responsibility, who is prepared to make difficult decisions, who is prepared to ensure that we’re going to be OK in the long run because we’re going to do the right thing today, then there are worse things that people could call me,” he said.
McGuinty makes a point of noting in virtually every speech that he was one of 10 children and assumed a leadership role over his younger siblings that helps guide him to this day. He can’t resist comparing his position as the eldest son in a large family to Ontario’s role as the most populous province in Confederation.
“Growing up as the biggest and the strongest and the oldest boy in this family of 10, somebody was called upon regularly to do the heavy lifting. I had to change my own diapers,” he told the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce recently. “The expectation for the biggest and the strongest in a big family is not unlike the biggest and the strongest in our Canadian family.”
Longtime colleague George Smitherman, the former deputy premier who quit cabinet to run for mayor of Toronto in 2010, says McGuinty’s public and private personas are one and the same.
“There’s not this calm and confident person who’s steering a course for Ontario in front of the cameras and then, behind the cameras, some different person,” says Smitherman.
The openly gay Smitherman with his confrontational style and the calm, collected McGuinty may seem like an unlikely pairing, and Smitherman admits he was surprised when McGuinty appointed him as health minister and deputy premier after the Liberals won the 2003 election.
But Smitherman said he soon learned he and the premier discovered they shared the same values and political goals.
“A lot of people have tried to characterize him as this kind of Catholic conservative person, but I’ve always found him to have a generosity of spirit, an open-mindedness and kind of core progressive values,” he says.
Smitherman stirred up controversy in 2006 by admitting to a past addiction to “street drugs” in the 1990s, but said McGuinty was more concerned with Smitherman’s personal struggle than with any political fallout from having a health minister talk about his illegal drug use.
“Many premiers would have processed that issue on their narrow political ground, ‘Oh this is another headache I don’t need,’ but his concern first and foremost was to address such points on a personal basis,” recalls Smitherman.
“Even at moments when in my own recollection I surely must have been testing his patience, he never demonstrated an ounce of impatience with me.”
The stress of the job doesn’t seem to show on McGuinty, who doesn’t appear to have aged much during his two terms, still showing the same few grey hairs and slim waistline he had when he first took office in 2003.
McGuinty was first elected in 1990 to represent Ottawa South, the same riding his university professor father held for one term before his death that year. His mother was a registered nurse who often worked shifts, frequently leaving Dalton Jr. in charge of getting his younger siblings fed and off to school.
McGuinty, whose brother David is a federal member of parliament, used to joke that he was the one selected to run for office after his father’s death because the family still had campaign signs in the garage with the name Dalton McGuinty on them.
After dating for eight years, McGuinty and his high school sweetheart Terri got married in 1980 when he was still in law school. McGuinty has joked that the long courtship is proof he doesn’t rush into things. The couple has four grown children between the ages of 25 and 30.
Outside work, time with Terri and the kids is McGuinty’s top priority, says Maychak.
“If he plays golf with me, it’s because all three of his sons weren’t available, because he’s trying to get that family time,” said Maychak.
Some Liberal caucus members perceive McGuinty to be somewhat distant because he doesn’t go for beers with them, says Maychak.
“Well, he doesn’t go for beers with anybody – he’s working,” said Maychak, “but if anyone of them ever have a serious problem, he’s loyal on a personal level.”
McGuinty will schedule some time for fun, like a game of golf, added Maychak, but he’ll also schedule work for the car ride after the game while his partners go for a drink.
McGuinty has had to fight the promise-breaker label since introducing a health tax of up to $900 per worker after vowing in 2003 not to raise taxes. He made the same promise before the 2007 election but then introduced the 13 per cent HST in 2010, which was applied to many things previously exempt from the Ontario sales tax, including electricity, home heating and gasoline.
The Liberal leader was absent from the party’s campaign commercials except for his unidentified voice, until late August, when he appeared against a white backdrop to admit he’s unpopular.
“Well, the polls tell us I’m not the most popular guy in the country,” McGuinty says to the camera. “Doing what’s right is not always doing what’s popular.”
McGuinty doesn’t have the national profile of some previous Ontario premiers, such as Bill Davis and David Peterson who each worked with the federal governments of their day on major Constitutional issues. Nor has he earned the reputation as a federal statesman.
He has, however, fought hard to defend Ontario’s rights on the national stage, forgoing Ontario’s usual role as a leader and peacemaker in Confederation to complain that Ottawa treats other provinces better when it comes to fiscal arrangements.
McGuinty suggested the May 2 federal election results put Quebec in a stronger position than Ontario because that province elected so many New Democrats the NDP is now the Official Opposition.
“There is a majority Conservative government dominated by the West (and) there is an official Opposition party dominated by Quebec,” McGuinty said recently. “We want to make sure that the Ontario voice remains strong, so we will continue to flex our elbows and assert ourselves.”
The Liberal leader was also quick to point the finger at Ottawa every time he was asked why his government had not called a public inquiry into the mass arrests and police beatings of protesters during the G20 summit in Toronto last year.
“I’ve always said that if there is an inquiry to be called it’s up to the prime minister,” McGuinty said recently. “It was his G20. It was his invitation. It was his choice to bring it to Toronto. It was his police predominantly that ran the security.”