Thursday, July 08, 2010

He's really a vanilla kind of callous [Updated]

Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario:
“He told us, ‘Just remember, the same guy who gave us the Charter also gave us the War Measures Act,’” said one startled MPP, noting the premier also refuted calls from several members to strike a public inquiry into the G20 debacle.

McGuinty’s contrasting of Trudeau’s 1982 entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution to the former prime minister’s use of the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec was “bizarre,” said another member.

“Then things got even weirder—he said: ‘Don’t forget about the silent majority.’”
So many interesting things here. One, McGuinty's government is not known for its leaks from caucus--not saying they don't happen, just that it's not notorious the way other governments and parties have been. (See Dion, Stephane) So the fact that we're hearing this at all is, as Scott Tribe notes, itself noteworthy.

Two: if we're hearing about this now, it's because there's a lot more than just this grumbling in the Liberal caucus. I have exactly zero recent insider information about the politics of Queen's Park, but here's some supposition.

Many observers--including people in his own party--came away from the 2007 election victory convinced that McGuinty was not going to run again: he would serve out the rest of his term and then go on his way. This would make room for others who wanted to run (note what former Deputy Premier George Smitherman is doing instead this summer.) This was not just idle speculation: statements from McGuinty himself led many to believe this.

But, well, these jobs aren't often given up willingly. By anyone. Premier of Ontario is a pretty unimpressive title by the standards of international politics, but it's a damn sight better than "blogger sitting out the heatwave in his underpants", to pick an example entirely at random.

So McGuinty wanted to stay and get one more kick at the can. He must have rationalized it any number of ways -- "Ontario's not ready for a gay premier (Smitherman)", "only I've beaten Eves and Tory--who else is gonna beat Hudak", etc. But the long and short of it is if he leaves this job it's gonna be involuntary. Part of me believes, in fact, that the HST is basically McGuinty's insurance policy: even if there was a credible challenge to his leadership (and there really isn't now) they sure as hell don't want to wear the HST in the next election. So let the Old Man have his chance. Hey, there's always an election in 2015, and how much trouble could the Tories do in 4 years?

So you've got a bunch of people in his caucus who wake up every morning thinking they could be Premier if only... Add in a lot of anxiety over the HST, a new eco-fee the province hasn't really told anyone about, and the unpleasantness over the G20. The fact that we're seeing caucus leaks spill out on to the pages of the Star is about all of this and none of it.

What it's really about is Liberals wishing McGuinty had done the honorable thing and taken an early bow. They'd like to go in to the next election with a Premier who the public hasn't seen every day for 8 years, who isn't saddled with questions about basic honesty to the voters, who can say more than just "Remember Mike Harris? I'm not him!" [1]

Liberals would like to say all of that, but they won't be able to unless they lose the next election.

[1] Liberals really, really like to forget that Mike Harris won this province twice--besting McGuinty to do it the 2nd time. For a lot of people, saying "I'm not Mike Harris" is a con, not a pro.

UPDATE: An actually-informed source draws my attention to two things about this story. One, it's unclear how many anonymous sources this story is drawing on, but it's at least two and as many as four, though one of these is from outside caucus. A careful reading suggests there's less to this story than meets the eye, at least as far as grumbling within caucus goes. Two grumbling MPPs does not a caucus revolt make.

But two, and this is something I should have caught on the first reading, take the Nixonian element out of the "silent majority" quote. This should actually be setting off alarm bells in the party for a different reason: the use of the phrase "silent majority" is a dead giveaway for a government that is losing (or lost) touch with the electorate.

Those two things are my better-informed interlocutor talking, but to expand on this a bit: we actually have pretty good ways of measuring public opinion, and have for most of the last century. Governments rely on these measures daily, so when a leader says he's relying on "the silent majority", that's a different way of saying he's listening to the voices in his head.

Just as a for example, Ernie Eves and Stephen Harper were proud to address a pro-Iraq War rally in April 2003 that called on the "silent majority of Canadians" to back the US. Harper said the same thing to CTV.

Of course, there is not and never has been a "silent majority" of Canadians clamoring to board that particular train. A poll in March 2003 showed nearly three-quarters of Canadians opposed and it was just as unpopular a year later, if not more so. Ernie Eves would learn what the actual majority of Ontarians wanted later that year when he lost to the current Premier.

It appears Dalton McGuinty now needs to learn the lessons that Eves did in 2003. And it's terribly sad to have to write that sentence.

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