I have reviewed a good number of political memoirs over the years, and my observation is always the same: they are unsatisfying in what is left unsaid or merely hinted at. Dalton McGuinty’s Making a Difference (Dunburn, 240 pages, $35) is no different.
It is no easy task writing a memoir of a 25-year political career, from running in Ottawa South to replace his father as MPP to time on the opposition benches, from running for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party to governing for about a decade after winning three provincial elections. Numerous events are considered with the bare minimum of details — more would have been appreciated — but with plenty of McGuinty’s feelings about these occasions being recalled. As but one example of the unnecessary brevity of the book, McGuinty recounts the 1991 Liberal leadership in which he endorsed Lyn McLeod over Murray Elston in a mere two pages. There is little in the way of reflection on how this affected the party or lessons he learned from this leadership contest for his own bid five years later.
The 1996 Liberal leadership race is a fascinating one, with a dramatic convention that saw McGuinty climb from placing fourth to winner during successive ballots in voting that lasted into the wee hours of the morning, and yet he gives only a perfunctory retelling of the story with few insider tidbits.
McGuinty says he supported McLeod in 1991 because of her “voracious appetite for policy” which he claims “had much appeal to me” because politics is all “about good ideas.”
Yet, for a man who claims to be moved by ideas and to not like politics, he expresses a lot of regrets over his political decisions. The National Post’s Chris Selley had an amusing column about Making a Difference recounting McGuinty’s regrets — he had more than a few — including letting cabinet ministers go because of their unpopularity among caucus or scapegoating them over scandals. McGuinty bemoans the negativity of politics and regrets calling premier Mike Harris a thug. He regrets not doing more about climate change, but it was politically too difficult. For a man who disdains politics and elevates personal conscience and ideas, he regularly chose politics over what he considered the right policy.
In 1994, the NDP government proposed Bill 167 which would have changed the definition of spouse in Ontario law to recognize same-sex partners. It was eventually defeated when a handful of NDP MPPs joined the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives in opposing it. McGuinty regrets his vote. Despite his claim he usually acted on principle he would like a do-over to vote for Bill 167. Despite his lament at the nastiness of politics, he claims the only reason it was unpopular was because “scaremongers had a field day” providing “great talk-radio fodder.” Why he gave into the scaremongers, he never says. But he did, and he voted with his party. He writes, “it was the roar of the crowd on one side and my conscience on the other. And I went with the crowd.” My guess is not that he voted against his conscience at the time (there is no mention of a religious struggle for this self-professed Catholic), but rather that his view of homosexuality changed over time; regardless, it is one of his many regrets in public life.
He also regrets how his government handled sex-ed. In 2010, the government released its proposed changes to the health curriculum which “had been in the works for three years” and was the subject of “extensive consultations” with teachers, although not parents. He claimed to “have no idea our government was even considering changes to sex ed until a reporter asked me about it” – these same changes that had been in the works for three years. This might be true, but then he missed an opportunity to explain how policy is created by bureaucrats with minimal or no influence from the premier’s office, or how he was kept out of the loop, or whatever the real story was. Assuming McGuinty is telling the truth – and anyone who has seen government up close would know there are good reasons to believe him – there are insights into government that the former premier could have provided but chose not to. By not doing so, he leaves the impression that he might not be entirely truthful about his recounting of this story.
He said the problem with the sex ed curriculum was not the content, but the process. “We had put the cart before the horse” and failed to convince parents of the government’s view that the curriculum needed updating because students learn about sex at earlier ages with the internet nowadays. The government got the policy right, in McGuinty’s view, it just didn’t manage the file correctly.
Again, despite his repeated claim to want to see more civility in politics, McGuinty dismissed much of the opposition as “extreme,” coming from “Christian fundamentalists.” McGuinty “put our proposal on ice” to begin consultations with parents, but those consultations seem a one-way street of the government telling families why they need to accept the sex-ed changes. He never did bring it back before resigning as premier in early 2013. Yet again McGuinty seemed to place political considerations ahead of his deeply held principles.
McGuinty’s memoirs still tell us much about the former premier, including how he hopes to be viewed (he liked the moniker “Premier Dad” because family was important to him). They are also useful to illustrate the contradictions that politicians live with as they navigate political reality. Some make more compromises with their own principles than others. The frequency with which the word regret shows up in his 240-page memoir suggests McGuinty is aware of more of those compromises than he would like to admit.