McGuinty's new challenge: transitioning from majority premier to consensus rule

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TORONTO - More than 25 years of majority rule in Ontario was broken Thursday by a Liberal minority, but the next session of the Ontario legislature could in fact be fairly stable.

The magic number for a majority is 54 — out of 107 — seats, and Premier Dalton McGuinty fell just shy, with the Liberals winning 53 seats.

The Progressive Conservatives won 37 seats and the NDP was left with 17.

It wasn't the "strong, stable" majority McGuinty campaigned for, but it also wasn't the squeaker some polls suggested it could be. The victory also marks the first time in more than a century that a Liberal premier has won three terms.

The challenge for McGuinty now is to transition from presiding over eight years of a majority to the more delicate balancing act of keeping a minority from toppling.

In a minority the governing party must work with the opposition parties in some respect to at least find consensus on an issue-by-issue basis in order to get legislation passed.

Some premiers try to govern with more formal agreements such as a coalition — where members of an opposing party get cabinet posts — or an accord, which the legislature saw in 1985.

That was when the New Democrats propped up David Peterson's Liberals for two years in exchange for the passage of certain legislation. It was also Ontario's last minority government.

During the campaign McGuinty took pains to rule out such formal co-operation with the other parties, saying "no coalition, no accord, no agreement, formal or informal, or any other linkage of any kind."

Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, said the next session will see more co-operation — out of necessity, due to falling just shy of a minority — but McGuinty could still run the show very much like a majority.

"One of the benefits of a split vote is we may actually have to see some co-operation and discussion between the parties," Graefe said.

"I'd guess that Dalton McGuinty's approach will be a bit different from (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper's in a minority situation."

Harper's three governments have taken the reverse path of McGuinty's — two minorities followed by a majority. During the minorities election speculation was rampant as the opposition parties threatened to bring down the government over various issues.

"Not that McGuinty's necessarily the biggest consensus politician, but I don't think he will always be testing and trying to punish the opposition parties in the way Harper did and play games of brinkmanship," Graefe said.

McGuinty will have to find ways to make legislation that he wants passed tenable to one of the opposition parties so they can vote for it, Graefe said. But knowing no one will be eager to sender voters back to the polls too quickly still leaves McGuinty with the upper hand.

Despite losing 19 seats, this election still marks a rare feat for McGuinty. Through history Ontario voters have elected many consecutive Conservative governments, but McGuinty's victory marks only the second time in the province a Liberal premier has won three terms.

The last one was Oliver Mowat, who was premier from 1872 to 1896. In fact, he won six straight majorities.

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