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How the Liberals took Ontario

Globe and Mail Update

Dalton McGuinty took his first step toward Thursday's victory the night he conceded defeat in the 1999 election.

He did not hesitate when his closest friends asked him if he wanted to remain as Liberal Party Leader or get out of the public spotlight to enjoy life with his wife, Terri, and their four teenaged children. He told them he was determined to learn from the defeat and to build a stronger Liberal Party that could match and exceed the Progressive Conservatives in all the areas of a modern campaign.

 "It was like a nanosecond. He had no doubts. No one should underestimate the determination of the man," said one of the people who was in the room when the Liberals watched the dispiriting results.

 Then Mr. McGuinty went before the television cameras to promise his supporters - correctly, as it turned out - that things would be different the next time the two parties squared off in an election. "I want to tell you we will continue to fight for all those things the majority of this province believe in. . . . And it will be my privilege to lead that fight," he said on June 3, four years ago.

 He set out the themes that the Liberals would build into their winning platform, themes that had not found sufficient resonance with voters in 1999. Liberals, he said, would offer "some of those things that Ontarians simply have to be able to count on - good schools, good hospitals, good health care, good education and something else . . . We want to bring an end to fighting so we can finally start working together."

But Mr. McGuinty and his closest advisers had learned during the 1999 campaign that positive themes fall far short of winning a modern election. The campaign organization was woefully short of people, expertise and preparation. "A lot of things that we accomplished in this [2003] election represented years of work to get us to where we could do it and do it well," one veteran Liberal said. Central to all this, however, was Mr. McGuinty's insistence that the party stick with the positive themes that won it 40 per cent of the vote in 1999, when the Tories retained power with 45 per cent of the votes.

 Mr. McGuinty repeatedly turned down proposals for political gimmicks such as tax cuts, or the development of policy wedge issues to fight those brought forth by the Tories to appeal to specific groups of voters, including private-school tax credits and tax breaks for seniors.

 "Stuff that looks like a no-brainer now that we've won was not conventional wisdom a year or two ago. He was the one who said, `No more tax cuts. People have had enough of tax cuts.' He was the one who said, `I want to run a positive campaign' when other people were saying we needed wedge issues," a strategy adviser said.

The allure of tax cuts was especially hard to resist. The Tories had succeeded with tax cuts. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton had offered a tax cut. But Mr. McGuinty insisted voters would accept a Liberal Party that argued the money would be better spent elsewhere. Another strategy that was hard to resist would have put Mr. McGuinty at the centre of a U.S.-style campaign, focused on negative advertising and attacks on the Tories. The Conservatives had done this successfully under the guidance of U.S. Republican campaign guru Mike Murphy.

 The most memorable aspects of the previous two campaigns were the television ads. In 1995, one portrayed former Liberal leader Lyn McLeod as a weather vane changing policy to go along with the political winds. In 1999, one ad capitalized on voters' lack of familiarity with Mr. McGuinty, surrounding him with question marks to argue, "He just isn't up to the job." The Liberals knew they would face this strategy from the Tories again in this election. To counter it, they consulted with David Axelrod, a political adviser to the Democratic Party in the United States.

 Mr. McGuinty travelled to Chicago to look at ways to deal with negative campaigning. But he resisted the U.S. political maxim, "Go dirty or go home." Instead, the Liberals turned to a Canadian ad man, Peter Byrne, who had participated in designing the I Am Canadian commercial that brought national attention to a beer brand.

 He helped craft the highly unusual ads that had Mr. McGuinty speaking about his political beliefs, first in a barren loft, and then to the crowd at his nomination meeting in Ottawa South. While critics panned them, they won over voters. And they sold Mr. McGuinty's sincerity.

"His stuff was awesome," said a McGuinty staffer who worked with Mr. Byrne. And while he made that trip to Chicago, Mr. McGuinty also travelled to other destinations in the United States and Britain to look at policies that had worked and that could be imported to Ontario. Many were eventually incorporated into the 144 pages of policy that the Liberals released in stages over the past year.

 The booklets on education, clean and safe communities, economic growth, health care, government reform and development of the north were given a central place in the development of the campaign. The rollout over a period of months brought more attention to the booklets than an all-at-once drop would have.

 And the books allowed Mr. McGuinty to argue that voters knew what he and his party stood for. Then, last spring, the party released estimates for increased spending and the additional revenue that would cover it.

 These estimates were endorsed by three financial experts, which again allowed Mr. McGuinty to argue throughout the campaign that he had balanced the books for his proposed programs.

 "We've got a solid plan. It is affordable, it is responsible, and I would argue it is absolutely essential today," he said as he wrapped up his campaign on Wednesday. He never had this credibility in 1999, on either his policies or the ability of a Liberal government to pay for its promises.

 After philosophy, policy and strategy came the need for expertise - to bring in more people who were not just enthusiastic amateurs. Matt Maychak, who had been the jack-of-all-trades in the 1999 campaign, focused solely on crafting Mr. McGuinty's messages as the director of communications. Phil Dewan, who had experience at Queen's Park and in Liberal politics from working in former premier David Peterson's government, became chief of staff with a mandate to recruit people for the office, to organize it to support Mr. McGuinty, and to ensure he met the people he needed to meet with. Gerald Butts, a veteran of federal politics, signed on as the resident policy expert to work through details with Mr. McGuinty, caucus policy groups and outside experts.

 He ended up travelling with Mr. McGuinty throughout the campaign and was able to explain policy details to reporters - a function that added credibility to the Liberals and that was never filled by the Conservatives. Greg Sorbara returned from a lengthy sabbatical from politics.

 A former minister in the Peterson cabinet who had failed in an attempt to win the leadership himself in 1992, Mr. Sorbara became party president in November, 1999. He brought a take-no-prisoners determination to the Liberal preparations.

 The party's organization was revamped with up-to-date communications and technology. Candidate recruitment became an intensive process of seeking out and encouraging people with solid reputations, instead of relying on local residents to come forward themselves. Fundraising was turned into a separate operation run by experts in parting people from their money.

 Tasks that were the responsibility of one person in the 1999 campaign were turned over to teams of four, six or eight people. Some of them worked on a part-time basis prior to the campaign, but all were committed to working full time for the four weeks leading up to the election. Campaign organization meetings drew 50 or 60 people.

And the expertise was there. Mr. Dewan brought on board veterans of the Peterson regime such as Sheila James, Vince Borg and David MacNaughton. From Ottawa, campaign veterans such as Warren Kinsella, Derek Kent and Gordon Ashworth signed on to help oust the Ontario Tories from power. The campaign organization was so deep that arrangements were made to have some people in reserve to fill in for anyone who became sick.

 "Some people have written about the Peterson people coming to help. But if you look at the campaign team, there are people who have been helpful to [Paul] Martin. There are people like Warren who were part of the [Jean] Chrétien organization," said one veteran who worked with the Liberals in 1999 and on the current campaign.

 "It's like everybody said, `Whatever it takes,' and they put aside various loyalties and histories and everyone did what they could do." For Mr. McGuinty, yesterday's victory was a reward for years of hard work by himself and his team and vindication for his belief in a policy-focused campaign. "I told myself that, at the end of this evening, I want to be in a position to say I ran the kind of campaign that I wanted to run, that the people of Ontario had an opportunity to get to know me, and that I ran on those things that I felt were important to me and the people of Ontario," he said. "And I'm satisfied with that."

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