Dalton McGuinty wants you to know he’s proud of his record.
Proud enough that the Ontario Premier talked for 25 straight minutes about it, accompanied by a slide show, as he paid visits to Kitchener and Hamilton last week. And proud enough that he’ll give that same presentation a whole bunch more places during his pre-election tour.
That’s all well and good, to a point. Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals believe they’ve done a poor job of talking about their achievements and the progress the province has made under their watch. Since next fall’s campaign will largely be a referendum on Mr. McGuinty’s eight years in office, they need to get their side of the story out.
But Mr. McGuinty also needs to explain why those eight years haven’t been enough for him. And at this point, that message is mostly absent.
The underlying theme of the Premier’s recent communications is that the province has come too far – on health care, on education, on economic renewal – to risk turning back the clock with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives. It’s an argument commonly made by governments around this stage of their existence, and it plays well within their own ranks. But as the Conservatives discovered in 2003, when Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals swept them from office, it can very easily backfire.
Unless voters are especially fond of the status quo, or scared of the alternative, the stay-the-course argument makes long-serving governments look tired and out of gas. And that’s very much the case Mr. Hudak’s Tories plan to make about Mr. McGuinty – that he’s yesterday’s man, ill suited to the new challenges of the postrecession era.
How to avoid that tag is weighing on Liberal minds. And it’s the cause of some debate in the party’s senior ranks.
As much as it would go against the Premier’s image as an incrementalist, some Liberals are trying to convince others that now is the time to surprise voters with an election-defining platform plank that would help the government capitalize on any desire for change instead of falling prey to it.
Few of those ideas have yet been fully formed. And each of them – from some new way of making postsecondary tuition more affordable, to replacing the current welfare system with a guaranteed annual income supplement, to finally merging Catholic schools into a single public education system – would carry all sorts of risk.
The strategic argument, from the advocates of the big-idea approach, is that the greatest risk of all is to appear complacent. But that warning seems likely to fall on deaf ears. Mr. McGuinty’s brand is stability, and there’s a reluctance to blow it up. Many Liberals are optimistic that the economy is turning the corner, the public mood is improving, and once voters think seriously about their choice they’ll decide Mr. Hudak isn’t ready for prime time.
If that mentality holds, any new policies will fit into more familiar themes – a push to improve boys’ literacy, for instance – while the underlying message will be that the Premier needs one more term to finish the job on works-in-progress such as phasing out coal-fired power, developing the northern “Ring of Fire” and rolling out full-day kindergarten.
But one way or another, Mr. McGuinty must convincingly address the obvious overriding question: Why exactly does he want to be Premier?
The simple answer, to him and his loyalists, is that he’s the best person for the job. But the rest of the province will probably want a little more than that.