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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

McGuinty's easy victory shows again that arrogance often gets its comeuppance

By ROY MacGREGOR
Globe and Mail
Friday, Oct. 3, 2003

It marks the end of the most boring decade of political leadership this country has ever seen.The people of Ontario, never known as risk-takers, have chosen a pointy-headed reptilian kitten eater from another planet to take them on into the 21st century.

Premier-designate Dalton McGuinty does, in fact, have a "little, sharp pointy head," just as Premier-cancelled Ernie Eves said the other day; and perhaps if he did not have one, the Tory Leader with the big, blunt, slicked head would have gotten away with such an ill-advised shot.

He did not -- no more than he got away with failing to apologize for a campaign worker's memo stating that McGuinty had a weakness for kittens. It was, from the beginning, a campaign where the incumbent got away with nothing, an election in which the most effective opponent turned out to be the people themselves.

The most telling factor in Canadian political fortune -- shelf life -- was too much in play for Eves to do anything but go down to defeat. The people voted, as Canadians almost always do, with their boots. And even if Eves had run a brilliant campaign, which he did not, he was surely doomed by the very factor that does in most northern politicians: malaise.

It marked the end of a 30-day campaign with very little to remember but juvenile insults. It held a debate that ended with three declarations of victory, but in truth was a victory only for those with better things to do than watch. It held one energetic campaigner, NDP Leader Howard Hampton, who tried every gimmick from holding up Swiss cheese to trying to nail red Jell-O to a wall, and whose final-day prediction of 30 seats turned out to be almost dead on -- for the Progressive Conservatives.

Hampton's party did worse than he predicted; Eves's party did almost as badly as predicted; and McGuinty's Liberals did just about exactly as predicted -- racing to a declared majority within 25 minutes of the polls closing.

It is instructive, to the rest of the country, that the voters of Ontario thumbed their noses at tax breaks and embraced what will undoubtedly result in higher taxes.

In 1995, the Tories, under then leader Mike Harris, rolled to a surprise victory with the Common Sense Revolution. Nearly 10 years later, it was widely considered nonsense, with not the slightest surprise to last night's results.

No one would say that such a strong statement from the electorate equals the "fury" that captured so much of the country during the days of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords -- a political anger that, intriguingly, first reared its head in Ontario when David Peterson's Liberals went down to defeat in 1990 and peaked three years later with the virtual destruction of the federal Conservatives -- but most assuredly an "itch" out there among the populace demands scratching.

Much will be made of Dalton McGuinty's campaign, his less-wooden personality, his small attempts at humour, his appeal to such family values as education, but far more than anything else, McGuinty is the beneficiary of that familiar Canadian dissatisfaction, just as NDP leader Bob Rae was when the Peterson government was given its due by Ontario voters.

Canadians are simply far more adept at tossing governments out than they are at pushing governments in, but since one must naturally follow the other, the power of dissatisfaction is pretty much built into the system.

Where this has broken down, of course, is in federal politics, where history has periodically seen Canadians defeat the ruling Liberals merely to wipe the smirk off their faces.

Arrogance -- which Canadians simply cannot bear -- gets its comeuppance, the party gets refreshed, time passes and the country is then able to satisfy a new itch if it so chooses.

That is the way it always worked, right up until 1993, when federal Tory leader Kim Campbell went down to a far more devastating defeat than Ernie Eves suffered last night. The Ontario Tories may recover; the federal Tories have never recovered.

In some ways, the demise of Eves is more interesting to study than the rise of McGuinty. Eves is, in fact, quite good in person, and was, most would say, effective and competent as finance minister. He proved, however, unelectable, in no small part because of that rising itch to oust those the public perceived as having grown fat and arrogant.

Another competent former finance minister is about to become prime minister in Ottawa. And just as Eves was an unknown as premier, Paul Martin is an unknown as prime minister. Both arrived with huge expectations; Eves squandered his; Martin has yet to spend any of his.

Eves could not overcome the long span of government he inherited. Martin inherits an even longer span of time in office and a growing weariness with federal arrogance -- but no opposition for the people to turn to should they one day wish to do so.

An itch that can't be scratched has never before been seen in Canadian politics.



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