OTTAWA The Liberals will tell you that Ontario voters chose change but that's only part of it. It's the voters themselves who have changed.
The sweep in yesterday's election by Dalton McGuinty is the surest indication that the public in Canada's largest province has changed its mind and does not want to go where the Progressive Conservatives wanted them to go. In giving the Liberals a solid majority, voters rejected the notion that they were fundamentally just taxpayers who wanted nothing more than to hang on to what Ernie Eves always called their ''hard-earned money.'' They embraced the notion of community.
For the past month, Mr. Eves's Conservatives dangled further tax cuts in front of voters, saying they were necessary for Ontario's economic prosperity. He offered property-tax rebates to seniors, mortgage-interest relief to homeowners and a pledge to drive down corporate taxes so that Ontario could compete with Alabama.
Mr. McGuinty and the Liberals countered by saying that eight years of slashing spending to pay for tax reductions was enough and that it was time to spend money on schools and hospitals.
He pledged to balance the budget and not to raise taxes -- this is the basic requirement in modern Canadian politics -- but he also promised to strip away nearly $5-billion in tax cuts promised by the Conservatives.
The Liberal victory suggests Mr. McGuinty had the better read on the public's mood.
It is a bitter pill for Conservatives to have to swallow but, in effect, the voters told them yesterday: "Thanks very much for your work after 1995 in eliminating the budget deficits that were crippling Ontario and for at least trying to lighten our tax burden. But we've decided that we really do care about the things that nurture us and knit us together as a community and we're willing to pay for them."
It was the out-and-out rout that everyone expected. The first media projection of a Liberal victory came just 21 minutes after the polls closed.
Soviet elections had more suspense than yesterday's contest. Cabinet ministers fell like dead timber. And although parts of the 905 remained loyal to the Conservatives, Toronto gave its heart almost exclusively to the Liberals.
Mr. McGuinty, 48, is an unlikely vessel for such strong public feeling. By his own admission, he's the straightest guy you could imagine. He was raised in the suburbs of Ottawa in a time when a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise was considered sophisticated. He's been married to his high school sweetheart for 22 years and had four children in five years. The McGuinty family Christmas card looks like something out of a Ralph Lauren advertisement.
And yet two days before the election, the Liberal Leader was able to attract a joyous crowd of about a thousand people in a downtown Toronto area where life is a touch more exotic. Gays and others who felt frozen out of Tory Ontario greeted Mr. McGuinty rapturously.
He told them he wanted to end the Conservative practice of pitting groups against each other for electoral advantage. He brought with him a distinctly urban agenda of affordable housing and improved transit. He reassured recent immigrants that he would do something to recognize their foreign credentials so they, too, could contribute to Ontario.
It was a variation on the 10-minute stump speech that he has perfected in the past month. It's his own work but it carries echoes of Bill Clinton's exhortation to U.S. voters in 1992 to choose hope over fear. The McGuinty version sometimes came perilously close to being hokey but he always leavened it with self-deprecating humour.
Mr. McGuinty flies back to Toronto today. He has to craft a cabinet and begin work on an agenda that will meet the impossibly high expectations he has engendered.
Some of what he has to do is specifically tied to his campaign. He has pledged to reduce classroom sizes, to find more family doctors and to clean up the air we breathe. Some of the expectations surrounding him are more general. That part of the population that is rejoicing because the Tories have been banished after eight years will want to see a new era -- quickly.
These hopes, unless they are properly managed, could end up crushing the Liberal Leader.
In his 17 months as premier, Mr. Eves faced some intractable problems. They belong to Mr. McGuinty now.