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Weighing Tory and McGuinty

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

John Tory should no more be defined by his faith-based folly in the current Ontario election campaign than Dalton McGuinty by his broken pledge not to raise taxes in the last. Both men are better than their worst moments. Mr. McGuinty is not a serial liar and Mr. Tory is not grossly incompetent. They have erred, and both compounded their error by failing to come clean about it. But politics is an unforgiving calling, and its practitioners deserve a greater degree of empathy.

Ontarians, in fact, are lucky; some jurisdictions lack a single capable candidate for the top elected office. Canada's largest province counts two. And despite the amplification of differences that election campaigns bring out, these two adversaries are actually closer to one another in personal values and philosophical inclinations than either is to the three premiers who preceded them, Mike Harris included. They are earnest and middle-of-the-road, much like the province they seek to lead. Decent and well-intentioned, they have both been drawn into the public arena for the right reasons.

Mr. McGuinty was lucky in 2003. An accidental Liberal leader, he became Premier because he was seen as a sufficiently safe alternative for Ontarians exhausted by the turbulence and radicalism of two terms of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. Mr. McGuinty recklessly overpromised in that campaign, for which he is still paying a political price. But he has essentially fulfilled his general terms of agreement with the people of Ontario, working hard to upgrade the quality of public services they felt had been degraded by the previous Conservative government. In politics, a wave of radical reform is often followed by a period of consolidation. Mr. McGuinty is a born consolidator; he likes to measure progress by increments rather than leaps and bounds. One can imagine him putting his money on red or black at the roulette wheel, always seeking to shorten the odds of failure.

It is said that a good manager is someone who works to improve the status quo and a leader is someone who changes the status quo. By that measure, Mr. McGuinty is a good manager, steering a talented cabinet and dealing competently with the issues in front of him. His government has succeeded in attracting investment to the critical auto industry, calming the province's classrooms and balancing the budget. But his government has also been upbraided by the Auditor-General for a scandal involving $32-million in grants to multicultural groups. He has made some progress in health care, but he has been slow to invest in new electrical generation. He likes report cards, so give him a B.

If there is a particular weakness in Mr. McGuinty's approach, it would be in his overreliance on public services to deliver the goods to Ontarians, his very raison d'être as Premier. Mr. McGuinty operates from a surplus mentality. To him, governing is a process of near-constant investment in health care, in education, in the environment, in cultural communities. Next: full-day kindergarten. It's all possible, perhaps, when the economy is strong. But what happens when the inevitable downturn occurs? Will he ever be able to turn the spigot off?

The Liberal Leader likes to talk up his ability to keep his eye on the ball, and that is probably true. He is not the kind of politician who lifts his eyes to the horizon. He prefers steady but unspectacular progress, and that is probably what Ontario has wanted in the wake of the Harris years – a consolidator and consensus-seeker in place of the bruising, polarizing politics of change. But Mr. McGuinty should be a bit more circumspect in his liberal dumping on the Harris years. When he extols the virtues of school testing, for example, he conveniently forgets the bloody-minded resistance to it of those same teacher unions now campaigning for him and the equally stubborn resolve of the Harris government in pushing it through.

If Mr. Harris was a reformer and Mr. McGuinty is a consolidator, what of Mr. Tory? Neither title fits him easily. Although he learned his politics at the feet of former premier William (Bland Works) Davis, Mr. Tory is an innovator at heart, a leader armed with a mainstream agenda but unafraid to take risks in implementing it. In many ways, he is less conservative than the stalwart Mr. McGuinty. His approach to health care is hardly radical. He embraces a single-payer health-care system. But whereas Mr. McGuinty cannot imagine services delivered by anyone other than government, Mr. Tory is willing to extend the delivery options within the basic strictures of the medicare system. This has the potential not to hurt but to bolster the quality of health care in Ontario. And Mr. Tory would finally repeal the regressive health tax levied by Mr. McGuinty in more desperate financial times.

But it was this innovative bent over which Mr. Tory so spectacularly tripped when it came to faith-based schools. The policy, while intellectually defensible, was badly out of sync with the temper of the province. Canadians yearn for greater cohesion. Ultimately, it is government's role to provide the glue that binds a diverse society together, starting with the school system. Mr. Tory could argue until he's blue in the face that faith-based schools exist anyhow and that a basic unfairness exists between Roman Catholics and other faiths. But he could not seem to understand that he was pulling in one direction while the vast majority of Ontario voters were rowing the other way. Since one of the requirements of leadership is to produce followers, Mr. Tory can only be judged to have failed utterly on that score.

Mr. McGuinty would never make such a mistake, because he tends to play within the rules as they stand. Mr. Tory was willing to change the rules in a bid to make them fairer, but he overreached. That this ambition may cost him the election is ultimately a misfortune of his own making.

It is a shame. Mr. Tory is a remarkable man. He is a leader in business and the law who, through the example of his life's good works, has provided a lesson in citizenship. He has devoted untold hours of volunteer time and raised tens of millions of dollars for charities. He volunteered to help turn around the Canadian Football League in its most moribund days and devoted himself in more recent years to the plight of talented immigrants unable to break into the job market. He has built bridges between blacks and whites, straights and gays, the dispossessed and the powerful. In other words, he is exactly the sort of person who should be attracted to public service, but rarely is.

But being a great citizen and a great leader are not necessarily the same thing. Mr. Tory still needs to establish his bona fides on the latter score, especially after the debacle over faith-based schools. Should the outcome of next week's vote not come out in his favour, as is likely, he should stay in his job, learn from his mistakes and offer himself to the people of Ontario again.

So it comes down to this. If you are looking for a quiet grinder who won't do anything too bad and will probably do a few things pretty well, Dalton McGuinty is your man. He has had ample on-the-job training and is certainly the safe bet. If you think the province could use a jolt of innovative thinking and are willing to take a chance on a good man who has yet to prove his capabilities in the fast waters of politics, John Tory is the one for you. Neither would ill serve Ontario.

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