by Christina Blizzard
That was one big, fat fumble.
Premier Dalton McGuinty, once the golden boy of the province’s teachers, has now become a pariah in the education sector.
The passage of his controversial “Putting Students First” bill imposes a wage freeze and takes away teachers’ right to strike for two years.
The public galleries were packed with union members Tuesday. After the bill passed with the support of the PC Party, the galleries erupted with furious shouts of “shame.”
This is a shocking turn of events for the premier who has counted on the support of the powerful public sector unions to get him elected for the past three elections.
You can’t help thinking this was all about McGuinty’s growing impatience to move on.
Who wouldn’t want to call it a day after nine years at the helm — especially when you’re suddenly in a minority situation with unpopular cuts ahead?
This is, possibly, the biggest strategic mistake the usually sure-footed McGuinty and his Liberals have made politically in the last 10 years. The golden touch seems to have escaped them.
In a high risk strategy, McGuinty turned on his erstwhile union buddies in a nasty way. After months of sneering at PC leader Tim Hudak’s proposal to freeze all public sector pay as “unconstitutional,” McGuinty suddenly adopted the Conservative plan and pushed ahead with the legislation.
He even made the “no strike” provision retroactive — although no union was in a legal strike position.
Teachers are now planning to wear black and withhold help with extra-curricular activities in protest.
McGuinty was hoping his tough stance would play well with voters in Kitchener-Waterloo, a riding vacated because he gave former Tory cabinet minister Elizabeth Witmer a plum appointment at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
The only flaw was that voters recognized a cynical ploy for majority government and kicked the government in the backside.
“What it is is a Liberal attempt to gain majority power,” NDP leader Andrea Horwath told reporters. “They failed in that attempt, but they had no choice but to go forward in this wrong-headed direction.”
Where does McGuinty go from here?
At an annual general meeting in Ottawa at the end of this month, Liberals will be asked: “Do you wish for the Ontario Liberal Party to conduct a leadership convention within the next year?”
My guess is there’ll be scores of Grits who’ll be wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’ they can change the leader. And the person wishing hardest for a change at the top is McGuinty.
There will almost certainly be an election next spring. It will be impossible to get a budget through the House in this political climate.
McGuinty, you sense, doesn’t want to leave politics via the back door — and political defeat — as did Jean Charest in Quebec.
After so long in the premier’s chair, he’s earned the right to depart with his head high. He’s still arguably the most powerful political force in this province; he’s still the Liberal brand.
All the same, within the next couple of months, the party will be looking for ways to move on with a leadership convention.
The Liberals no doubt hope that when McGuinty leaves, he’ll take with him all the teacher anger so they can renew their friendship with the unions. They’ll kiss and make up and get back to the business of electing Liberal majorities.
Hudak has rural Ontario sewn up. Horwath has shown she can win seats in the most unlikely places.
By elections are often one-off ways of sending a message.
Smart politicians pay attention to that message. And they don’t take voters for granted.
Categories: Contributor Columns