CANADA/COVER

A REMARKABLE BERAL UPSURGE

Mary Janigan May 13 1985
CANADA/COVER

A REMARKABLE BERAL UPSURGE

Mary Janigan May 13 1985

A REMARKABLE BERAL UPSURGE

CANADA/COVER

Mary Janigan

They appeared only 10 minutes apart on television after a competition that left them almost neck-and-neck at the finish line. But the starkly different images they projected to their Ontario audience exposed a gulf in attitude and manner as wide as the 400 km between them last Thursday night. From the rural resort region of Muskoka, a subdued Premier Frank Miller, 57, conceded that his once-secure Conservative government had been reduced to minority status by the electorate and was clinging to power by only a handful of seats. Clad in a brown blazer and his trademark tartan tie, the premier pledged to learn from the election results and vowed to show urban Ontarians that “good leaders do come from Muskoka.” Then, a jubilant Liberal Leader David Peterson, resplendent in a sleek blue suit and red polka-dot tie, greeted his home-town supporters in London with conciliatory words and barely restrained glee. Declared the 41-year-old former businessman: “This is truly a magnificent moment. The message is that the people of this province want forward-looking and compassionate government.”

Those messages sent shock waves through Conservative back rooms in the province—and across the nation—after Ontario voters came within four seats of ejecting Miller’s historically entrenched Tories from office. For the divided and dispirited Conservatives, it was a clear signal that Miller’s right-wing, rural roots did not sell well in an increasingly urban and urbane Ontario. For the province’s resurgent Liberals, it was evidence that they have emerged from the shadow of defeat that had eclipsed the party regionally for years and nationally since the departure of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau a year ago.

For Conservatives across the nation it was a disconcerting signal that the electorate has not—despite the federal party’s massive electoral sweep in September-veered decisively or lastingly to the right. And for Liberals elsewhere, vanquished federally and out of power in the provinces, it was a rare and reassuring sign that they may be on the move again (page 18).

The Ontario Tories suffered heavy

losses in a competition that the three main parties all contested under leaders chosen since the last election four years ago. Miller, as successor to former premier William Davis and the sixth leader in a 42-year-old governing dynasty, inherited a government that controlled 72 of the 125 seats in the legislature when he took over at the beginning of February. He emerged from the election he

called on March 25—without first meeting the legislature as premier—with only 52 seats, 11 short of a majority.

Indeed, Peterson’s Liberals won the most votes provincewide and captured 48 seats, up from 28. The New Democratic Party, led by lawyer and former federal MP Bob Rae, 36, rose to 25 from 22 seats, short of what the party had hoped to gain. The Liberals attracted 38 per cent of the provincial popular vote, compared to 37 per cent for the Tories and 24 per cent for the NDP. Eight Conservative

cabinet ministers went down to defeat. Most of them—including Environment Minister Morley Kells, Industry Minister Gordon Walker and Solicitor-General John Williams—were prominent members of the party’s right wing. “It has been a tough campaign,” Miller told his supporters. “We will listen carefully, we will learn, we will do our best.”

To do so, Miller will have to learn the delicate skill of running a minority government. To that end, the premier said he will recall the legislature on May 21 and he indicated that he will not introduce controversial legislation because minority government is “a high-wire balancing act.” For his part, Peterson claimed that “we have far more which unites us in this province than divides us.” But he said that the Liberals will take advantage of their new power to promote job creation, equality for women, pollution control and educational reform. Rae, whose party’s support could be critical to the survival of Miller’s government, vowed that “we will act responsibly, we will act accountably.”

Despite those notably unspecific pledges, all three parties may find it difficult to keep a minority Conservative government in office. In fact, there are numerous issues that could bring about the fall of the Tories. Both the Liberals and the NDP oppose the Conservative policy of permitting doctors to bill patients for more than is covered by the province’s medicare system, a policy that Miller reaffirmed during the campaign. On the issue of unemployment, the premier has proposed a three-year small-business tax exemption to help create jobs—a policy that the other parties oppose.

Peterson has already ruled out the possibility of trying to form a coalition with the NDP to supplant the premier.

Both opposition parties will have to weigh the risk of invoking popular displeasure by forcing another costly election soon against the gamble that propping up the Tory government will give Miller an opportunity to recover. Said the premier: “The electorate will be in no mood to be tested early.”

In the wake of the election upset, the

mood of Ontario’s voters was suddenly under scrutiny by strategists from all three parties in all provinces. Just eight months after their stunning defeat by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives, federal Liberals contended that the Ontario result is a signal that voters in the most populous province, at least, may finally be prepared to overlook the unpopular record of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. In the Maritime provinces and Quebec, the party is once again a political threat to

established Tory governments.

As well, the results indicated that Ontario’s Tories had lost contact with the province’s city dwellers. In the election the Conservatives lost 17 of the 51 urban seats, and three of the seven heavily ethnic ridings, that they held in 1981. Said Liberal campaign manager Ross McGregor: “Frank Miller and the

Tories provided us with a historic opportunity because they presented to the public an aging, right-wing image.” He added: “They left room for David Peterson and the Liberal party to occupy the centre—and it was that centre of the political spectrum that we had so desperately tried to occupy during the Davis years without success. Peterson has succeeded in putting an urban face on the party without abandoning the True Grit rural constituency.”

For his part, Tory campaign chair-

man Patrick Kinsella took “responsibility for what happened” to Miller. He added: “I think Peterson just knew where to go. He knew where he wanted to shore himself up geographically; he ran a very competent campaign, and the media was kind.”

Strategists for all three parties sought explanations for why the traditional Conservative coalition of urban and rural voters had crumbled. Part of the reason clearly lay in the contrast between the confident Peterson and the folksy but far less certain Miller. A formerly unabashed right winger, Miller struggled unsuccessfully to convince voters that his vision extended beyond his Muskoka smallbusiness horizons. By contrast, Peterson symbolized the new Liberal—a polished post-Trudeau politician who espoused a classic small-1 liberal platform. In the face of that challenge, the Tory regime appeared to be more struggling than stable. And Miller compounded his problems by splitting his party and rebuffing an oft-proven election-winning operation—the Big Blue Machine. Instead, he put his own loyalists in positions of power; gradually they lost control of the policy agenda.

s polls showed support for the IConservatives eroding during the campaign, Miller’s strategists made an eleventh-hour attempt to repair that severe breach within the party organization. Only a week before voting day, those organizers met with members of the party’s Big Blue Machine, a group of veteran strategists. According to party sources, the Big Blue loyalists suggested some basic changes in campaign tactics. But Miller’s organizers, apparently still unwilling to share power with the men and women who supported his rivals in last January’s party leadership race,

accepted only a few minor suggestions.

The meeting ended without a reconciliation between the two factions—and the Miller campaign continued to flounder. “Amateurs—basically they are all amateurs,” snapped a former insider who was in close contact with the Conservative campaign. Kinsella, he added, “is an excellent mechanic but he is not a strategist. He never had a major say in

the federal or Ontario campaigns before—he did what he was told.”

The unbroken Conservative reign began with George Drew in August, 1943. And it held through the brief tenure of Thomas L. Kennedy in 1948-49 into the eras of Leslie Frost (1949-1961) and John Robarts (1961-1971). Under Robarts’s successor, William Davis, the Tories twice—in the 1975 and 1977 elections—held on with a minority of the seats in the legislature. The party rebounded in the 1981 election, winning 70 seats—a 15-seat majority over the combined Liberal and NDP opposition.

Traditionally, the party’s strength has been solidly rooted in a coalition of rural and urban voters who supported the Conservatives’ mix of moderately progressive and conciliatory policies. Flexible and responsive to change, the party managed to attract voters from both the political right and the centre. At the same time, the Conservatives almost always produced leaders whose stature and personal popularity outstripped that of the party itself. Davis, noted Peterson, “achieved statesmanlike stature in his own time.”

Still, cracks in the Tory’s provincial foundation began to appear after Davis announced last fall that he planned to step down. A bitter leadership race developed involving four of Davis’s ministers who straddled the wide ideological range of the Conservative party. The urbane former attorney general, Roy McMurtry, and the brash and ambitious provincial treasurer, Larry Grossman,

stood on the left of their party; the stolid former agriculture minister, Dennis Timbrell, occupied the centre. Miller, who served as Davis’s industry minister, was on the right.

At the party’s leadership convention on Jan. 25 and 26 in Toronto, Miller was the favorite because most of the delegates were old-guard, right-wing Conservatives—a group that many younger party members contend no longer represents an increasingly cosmopolitan and

urban Ontario elector_

ate. But those delegates Kinsella: low helped Miller, on the third convention ballot, to squeak to victory by 77 votes over Grossman— even though all three of his rivals were united against him.

The choice of Miller was a departure for the Ontario Tories. At 57, the affable former chemical engineer and resort operator had a history of espousing controversial right-wing policies. Appointed to the cabinet for

the first time in 1974 as health minister, Miller tried to cut costs by closing smalltown hospitals. As treasurer in 1982 he extended the provincial sales tax to fast foods, women’s tampons and pets. As well, he expressed distaste for party programs ranging from rent controls to the minimum wage. His three leadership opponents distrusted that rightwing bias and they all said that the wealthy MPP from the Muskoka region of Ontario’s resort and cottage country was out of touch with the times. Despite that, private party polls after Miller became leader showed the party with the support of a strong 55 per cent of the electorate and the Liberals and NDP tied at 21 per cent apiece.

onservative insiders say now that Miller could have finished stronger if he had avoided several key mistakes. For one thing, he failed to heal the wounded feelings among the leadership camps after taking office. Most operators of the Big Blue Machine had worked for Grossman or McMurtry in the campaign. But Miller—as a rural MPP who was not a member of the inner Da-

vis circle—resented the

power of those nonelected representatives and the city-based cabinet ministers whom they supported. After taking the leadership, the premier and his associates wanted full control of the government—and they were unwilling to share their newfound power.

Publicly, Miller extended an olive branch to his opponents and their campaign workers. But behind the scenes members of his inner circle of advisers —including Vanguard Trust of Canada

__Ltd. president David

Melnick and the premier’s principal secretary, Michael Perik —made it clear to their onetime opponents that they were not needed. McMurtry resigned from the cabinet and subsequently accepted Prime Minister Mulroney’s offer of a job as high commissioner to Britain. Timbrell and Grossman _ stayed on as ministers, > outwardly confident * but inwardly offended, 5 their friends said. The

party strategists who had backed them, including some highly skilled organizers, went into political exile, unwanted by Miller and his aides. “It takes six months for the divisions to simmer down to the point where you can even start to think about working together,” noted a Tory insider. “The Miller camp totally cut out the group that always fine-tuned winning strategies.”

The strains within the party deepened when Miller appointed Kinsella, who masterminded B.C. Premier Bill Bennett’s 1983 election victory, as campaign chairman. At the same time, he sidelined Norman Atkins, veteran chairman of the Big Blue Machine and a guiding force behind the federal Conservatives’ victory last Sept. 4. Then, just six weeks after taking office—and before he had called the legislature into session or presented a throne speech—Miller called the provincial election for May 2.

With the campaign under way, Kinsella’s election strategy soon became clear—and immediately caused problems. Adopting the campaign technique of “low-bridging,” in which the leader keeps a low profile, Miller refused to take part in a proposed televised debate with the other party leaders. For the first few weeks of the campaign he delivered low-key speeches and avoided journalists. Although low-bridging was successfully employed by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau against Tory Leader Joe Clark in the 1980 federal election and by Mulroney against then-prime minister John Turner during last summer’s federal election, it was ill-suited to the Ontario campaign. In theory, low-bridging focuses attention on a weaker opponent and minimizes scrutiny of the leader’s own weaknesses by keeping him out of the campaign spotlight.

That strategy may not have been the right one for Miller because he went into the race as a new leader who had still not built an identity as premier. Indeed, low-bridging may have aided his two attractive opposition leaders by allow; ing them the opportunity to promote thejr own programs while criticizing Ï Miller for staying out of sight. Tory ' campaign veterans argued last week that Miller should have been setting the campaign pace with a strong cabinet team and a bold and dynamic agenda. Other problems beset the Tories. Prior to the election call, Conservative organizers shot a series of television commercials around Miller—but a party poll later showed that Ontario voters did not feel comfortable with the new premier.

As well, Miller’s campaign showed the ! effects of internal disorganization. A veteran party insider complained that

as a result of Kinsella’s lack of direction, the Conservative campaign was run on the basis of three competing strategies —from Kinsella himself, from Miller’s personal political associates like Perik and from the tour organizers on the road with the premier. “They do not have a smooth, well-run strategy,” noted the insider during the campaign. “They keep changing the focus. I watch the ads and I do not know the message that they are trying to give me. And they were so arrogant that they did not even assess what their opponents were all about.” Another Conservative, former cabinet minister Sidney Handleman, point-

ed out that the Tories early television commercials were often disconcerting. “Miller’s personality was distorted,” said Handleman. “It was not that genial, back-slapping man but someone pointing a finger at me telling me all the things that he was going to do for me.”

That backroom confusion affected Miller’s performance. Before the campaign started he had tried to defuse suspicions about his policies by allocating $22 million for child care, imposing a four-per-cent ceiling on permissible annual rent increases on controlled dwellings and unveiling a $1.3-billion “Enterprise

Ontario” program, which included a $975-million plan to eliminate provincial small-business tax for three years.

But he failed to sustain that momentum on the hustings. Instead, in a series of low-key speeches Miller argued that the Tories had pulled Ontario out of the recent recession and achieved a 5.6-percent economic growth rate last year. But the emphasis on sedate and secure government could not halt the accelerating slide in the polls. Gradually, Miller began to issue more election undertakings, pledging a total of $607 million in the first year of a new Conservative government and $1.7 billion over four years.

(The Liberals claimed that Tory policies would cost $1.1 billion in the first year and $2.3 billion over three years.) Nearing the end of the campaign the premier finally firmly took the offensive, attacking the Liberals for the alleged freespending habits of their federal counterparts. He also criticized the NDP as a party that “thrives on misery and hate.” In the end he suggested that voters could count on beneficial treatment for their ridings if they elected Tory members.

Meanwhile, both opposition parties waged formidable campaigns. A lacklustre performer in the legislature, Peterson was assured and polished on the campaign trail.