OTTAWA - Ontario's Liberals were re-elected to a third consecutive term Thursday after promising "an experienced steady hand on the tiller in rough economic times."
Premier Dalton McGuinty opened an early lead once results started coming in, and never lost it, with the Progressive Conservatives coming in a respectable second and the New Democrats a distant third, although capturing at least six more seats than they had before.
Liberals gathered in the ballroom of the historic Chateau Laurier hotel erupted with cheers every time the large screens showed the party was elected and leading in 54 seats, the magic number needed for a third straight majority. But the numbers would quickly fall back one or two seats, leaving a little less air in the room each time that happened.
The Liberals clearly felt they would not only win a third term but that they would get another majority, so there was surprisingly little applause when they were declared re-elected.
Throughout the month-long campaign, McGuinty stressed the same message that helped Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives win a majority government last May: there are storm clouds on the economic horizon and now is not the time to be changing leaders.
He also pointed out the Liberals bailed out the auto sector and spent billions to stimulate the economy during the last recession, and would take action again to protect jobs if there's another downturn.
That economic message played very well said Professor Bryan Evans of Ryerson University.
"I think that message resonated broadly with a clear plurality of the electorate," said Evans. "And that caused an erosion primarily from the Conservatives back into the Liberal camp."
McGuinty began the campaign with a TV commercial in which he stood alone before a stark white backdrop and admitted his popularity had fallen after two terms in office, before going on to defend his government's record, a very effective message that appeared to disarm many of his critics.
"Well, the polls tell us I’m not the most popular guy in the country," McGuinty said to the camera. "Doing what’s right is not always doing what’s popular."
The ad, which was later replaced by ones in the same style but without the admission of unpopularity, was something McGuinty wanted to do, said his younger brother Brendan, who is on the Liberal leader's bus full time during the campaign and spends time between elections helping find candidates for the party.
"It was very honest and very direct," Brendan McGuinty said of the first Liberal ads.
"He’s a pretty self-aware guy. Maybe because his extended family and his wife and kids keep him grounded, he’s aware of how people view him."
Being behind in the polls was no big concern for Liberal strategists, said brother David McGuinty, a Liberal MP.
"We have Dalton exactly where he was 21 years ago, underestimated," David McGuinty said as he watched the results come in.
With wife Terri at his side throughout the campaign — she took a leave of absence from her job as a kindergarten teacher — McGuinty frequently professes his love for her in speeches, and wins over crowds instantly be telling them he married his high school sweetheart.
Even election day itself is a family affair, with all nine of McGuinty's brothers and sisters working hard to get the Liberal vote out, some flying in from British Columbia and the United States to help their eldest sibling get re-elected.
After he and Terri voted Thursday, McGuinty said election days turn into huge family reunions.
"It's a really big occasion to bring my large and extended family together," he told reporters.
"It's a good excuse to bring the family together and we're looking forward to that."
Critics branded McGuinty as "Premier Dad" to suggest a father-knows-best type who wants government to protect people from themselves by banning everything from pesticides to smoking in cars with kids.
Those who know him say there is some truth in the Premier Dad moniker, but in the positive sense of a caring, compassionate leader who wants only the best for his family and his province.
McGuinty himself says he doesn't give much thought to labels that are manufactured to serve political purposes, but he doesn't shy away from the nickname either. Brother Brendan called the label admirable.
"I personally think this Premier Dad moniker, while a lot of people make fun of it, there’s a lot of people in Ontario who are pretty comfortable with somebody who is serious, responsible, who’s cautious, and who’s just kind of going to take care of things for me while I go off and change the kids' diapers and go about life," said Brendan McGuinty.
"It’s less about pesticide bans and smoking bans and more about he’s a responsible guy and he’s been like that his whole life."
But McGuinty has had to fight the promise-breaker label since introducing a health tax of up to $900 per worker after vowing in 2003 not to raise taxes. He made the same promise before the 2007 election but then introduced the 13 per cent HST in 2010, which was applied to many things previously exempt from the Ontario sales tax, including electricity, home heating and gasoline.
He criticized Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak for being too negative and divisive during the campaign, but as election day drew closer McGuinty dropped most of his attacks on the opposition in favour of a more positive message. Asked what he thought of the Liberal campaign, McGuinty responded with the family motto, in Latin, dreamed up by his late father: ne unquam respexeris — never ever look back.
Family is a common theme in the McGuinty message.
He makes a point of noting in virtually every speech that he was one of 10 children and assumed a leadership role over his younger siblings that helps guide him to this day. He can't resist comparing his position as the eldest son in a large family to Ontario's role as the most populous province in Confederation.
"Growing up as the biggest and the strongest and the oldest boy in this family of 10, somebody was called upon regularly to do the heavy lifting. I had to change my own diapers," he told the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce recently. "The expectation for the biggest and the strongest in a big family is not unlike the biggest and the strongest in our Canadian family."
McGuinty was first elected in 1990 to represent Ottawa South, the same riding his university professor father held for one term before his death that year. His mother was a registered nurse who often worked shifts, frequently leaving Dalton Jr. in charge of getting his younger siblings fed and off to school.
Dalton Jr. used to joke that he was one selected to run for office after his father's death because the family still had campaign signs in the garage with the name Dalton McGuinty on them.McGuinty dated Terri for eight years before they finally married in 1980 while he was still in law school. The long courtship is proof he doesn't rush into things, joked McGuinty. They have four grown children between the ages of 25 and 30.