McGuinty comes across as a whiner

Ontario premier has abandoned his province's tradition of being Canada's honest broker

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Stephen Harper is accused of courting Quebec and snubbing Ontario because he's had four public meetings with Jean Charest and only one private session with Dalton McGuinty.

At that, Prime Minister Harper met McGuinty for only 45 minutes at a Toronto waterfront hotel and then went downstairs to a provincial Conservative fundraiser where he introduced Progressive Conservative leader John Tory as the next premier of Ontario. He also lavished praise on Charest, as he did during the campaign, as the most federalist Quebec premier in our lifetime.

The prime minister then flew into Quebec City the next day where he and Charest announced, with great fanfare in the Salon Rouge of the National Assembly, Quebec's participation in the Canadian delegation at UNESCO, the United Nations educational and cultural organization.

There are three reasons for Harper to be striking up such a solid relationship with Charest and seeing him so frequently. First, they had something to announce by way of fulfilling a campaign promise Harper made in a Quebec City speech on Dec. 19. Second, Harper wants to help Charest in his uphill struggle for re-election next year, and so avoid a third referendum, an objective presumably shared by McGuinty. And third, the road to a Harper majority runs through Quebec, not Ontario.

Harper had nothing to announce with McGuinty, does not want him to be re-elected in the fall of 2007, and hopes to pick up enough additional seats in the Toronto suburbs to close the deal for a majority.

The Toronto media freaked out. The Globe and Mail ran two incensed editorials, one on the editorial page and another in a banner front-page headline: "Harper, Charest enjoy love-in while Ontario's jilted McGuinty fumes." The headline ran over a seven column colour photo of Harper and Charest sharing a laugh in the Salon Rouge.

The Globe complained editorially of "Harper's calculated snub against Ontario." McGuinty sent out his education minister, Sandra Pupatello, to accuse Harper of "backslapping with Tories in a very partisan fashion and then give the Ontario legislature the bum's rush."

This just in: Tory prime minister introduces Ontario Tory leader. However, Harper should probably have met McGuinty at Queen's Park, and allowed a photo-op, even though there was nothing to announce.

There might also have been an element of payback for McGuinty's grandstanding on the softwood lumber agreement the previous week, sending a minister into the legislature to denounce it rather than getting on the phone himself to Harper. McGuinty got what he wanted, protection of Ontario's share of the U.S. softwood market, but it looked as if he got by pushing Harper in public when he would have got it anyway in private deal-making.

And McGuinty came dangerously close to being excluded from a national consensus. For while Ontario was important to the softwood lumber agreement, only British Columbia and Quebec were essential to it.

McGuinty is also increasingly without friends among his colleagues, the premiers. There was an important meeting of the Council of the Federation in Montreal last month to receive the recommendations of a provincial task force on the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. The whole idea of the meeting was to showcase Charest's leadership on the file and improve his standing among Quebec voters. McGuinty astonished his colleagues by informing them he wouldn't be signing on to the communique, but rather reading his own. Charest was incensed; other premiers were appalled.

Ontario has an historic role as the honest broker of confederation. In modern times, there have been two golden eras of federal-provincial relations, the Pearson-Lesage-Robarts period of the 1960s, and the Mulroney-Bourassa-Peterson years of the 1980s. Lester Pearson and Jean Lesage couldn't have concluded the historic opting out arrangements on pensions without the statesmanship of John Robarts. Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa wouldn't have gotten Meech Lake without the leadership of David Peterson.

Twenty years later, another historic opportunity has arisen for a rebalancing of the federation by a new generation of leaders in their first terms of office. But McGuinty looks less like the honest broker and more, as the Globe has suggested, like the lone wolf of confederation.

If McGuinty decides to abdicate Ontario's leadership role in the federation, he not only risks being isolated, he will be creating an opportunity for John Tory to pick up the mantle of honest broker.

It's entirely up to McGuinty. It's the difference between being a leader and being a whiner.

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