THE ONTARIO LIBERAL PLAN
By Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal Party of Ontario 237 pages, free from http://www.ontarioliberal.com.

Dalton McGuinty is one of those characters, like Helen of Troy, whose portrayal changes radically in the hands of different authors. McGuinty appears in different guises in three recent books: as an insurgent socialist in Ernie Eves’ The Road Ahead (see “Heroes and villains,” Sept. 11); as a bumbling Iago in Howard Hampton and the NDP’s publicpower (see “Po-mo power,” Sept. 18); finally, as the level-headed hero of a sweeping epic whose adventures touch on nearly every facet of Ontario civilization in the unimaginatively titled, The Ontario Liberal Plan.

The Plan is the largest and most ambitious of the three political books released this summer; at 237 pages it is longer than the two competing books combined, comprised of five “books” and six supplementary chapters. This epic length is accompanied by other conventions of the genre: sweeping breadth; catalogues and lists of deeds and misdeeds; frequent digressions into simile (by way of “Ontario success stories” scattered throughout); and a heroic protagonist who embodies the values of his civilization.

That hero is a sort of McGuinty-of-all-trades superman, a latter-day Finn McCool. He’s a nautical captain (“running a tight ship”), a construction worker (“building a more innovative economy”), a farmer (“sowing the seeds of innovation”), and a venture capitalist (“investing in people”). In each case, McGuinty and his loyal band of Liberals are standing up for Ontarians — for every Ontarian, actually, whether s/he lives in Toronto (he’ll invest in public transit and inner-city schools) or in the north (he’ll invest in boosting northern jobs and is committed to allowing “the use of studded tires in the north”); whether she’s a parent of a school-aged child (he’ll allow public school choice) or an immigrant (he’ll force quicker recognition of international accreditation).

He does this in the face of a tyrannical opponent, the Harris-Eves government. As the story opens, the battle is in progress, and our protagonist has much ground to make up. A government headed by Mike Harris has cut off funding for public transit, ruined public schools, cut taxes at the expense of people, deregulated necessary services and ignored the needs of cities while simultaneously acting as if “Ontario ends an hour north of Toronto.” Harris has retired from battle, his place taken up by Ernie Eves but, like Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s books, he remains a diabolical presence even in his absence, continuing to inflict ruin on the province through Eves. These misdeeds are the subject of lengthy lists worthy of the most turgid Icelandic saga, labelled “The Harris-Eves Record” that account for a substantial chunk of each chapter.

Against the Harris-Eves money-hungry, anti-government government, McGuinty wields only a list of complaints and an all-things-to-all-people plan. He’ll “hold the line on taxes,” while “investing” and “reinvesting” in nearly every subject to which that verb can apply. He’ll serve the needs of the north while paying attention to the needs of the cities. He’ll be strong on crime and strong for schools and a strong defender of the environment. A reader wonders how such a strongman could possibly be defeated.

And yet he was once before, in 1999, a historical detail not mentioned in the exhaustive accounting of the past that takes place throughout The Plan. A clue to McGuinty’s Heel, however, presents itself to readers who find themselves drowsy midway through the second book. By being the champion of all causes, our hero somehow seems champion of none. Nowhere do we find the battle that will define McGuinty’s place in history. No one or two issues stand out as representing McGuinty’s (and through him, Ontario’s) identification of the key to our better selves.

Despite the baffling scope of McGuinty’s project, The Plan still manages to be repetitive, reiterating the strategies of one battle (education, in particular) in the midst of his recounting of others. In Homer’s time, when stories were told aloud and the audience needed to be reminded of history and context, this type of repetition was a necessary feature of the epic. Here it just looks like a self-indulgent author with no confidence in his reader feeling the need to repeat what he’s said before to ensure that his message is received. Now, if he went around the countryside reciting the entire thing, that’d be different.

So who wins? Here we come to an interesting structural quality of The Plan. In a convention more Scholastic Book Club than scholarly, each book ends with a choose-your-own-adventure page, headed “you have a choice.” The broad strokes of the preceding chapter are repeated: a choice exists between following the road of ruin paved by the Harris-Eves government and embarking on a heroic journey to the promised land of equality, opportunity and studded tires foretold by McGuinty. Each chapter concludes with an invocation to choose McGuinty. Feel free — as at press time it appeared about 50 per cent of you were planning to do — but really, how fun would that be?

Originally published in Eye Weekly on September 25, 2003.

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