Before the fractious Ontario electorate had its say, not a few Progressive Conservatives had everything worked out. Premier William Davis, 47, riding the issue of strong leadership in a time of national crisis, would win a smashing provincial majority in the spring. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, riding exactly the same issue, would win a smashing federal majority in the fall. Opposition leader Joe Clark
would be gleefully purged by whatever remained of the federal Tory party in winter. And Bill Davis, as one of the nation’s last credible Conservatives, would proceed majestically to Ottawa where his undeniable experience, political skill and capacity for hard work would scare the striped pants off the hated Grits and wilt final flower in Trudeau’s hand-stitched lapel. It was a neat scenario, but one that to be consigned to the scrap heap June when Davis once again failed to win a clear majority in the Ontario legislature. A provincial politician unable to control his home turf hardly threatened an entrenched federal regime.
Davis and the Big Blue Machine, the once-invincible party appáratus that is so clearly past due for an overhaul, had firmly expected Ontario to reward good government with an absolute majority. Private party polls taken by Robert Teeter consistently showed that all the Conservatives had to do was ask and they would receive at least 65 places in the 125House. For 19 months, Davis and his government had lived with the uncertainty a minority (at dissolution, party standwere PC 52, NDP 38, Liberals 35) and they had grown weary of the game. The Liberals, under a stumbling psychiatrist named Stuart Smith, had never looked more vulnerable. The opposition New Democrats, under the articulate but strangely subdued Stephen Lewis, were a long way from winning the hearts minds of what is traditionally a cautious, conservative electorate. The uncertainty in Quebec seemed to underline logic of a pitch for stability in Ontario. economy, though not as robust as Ontarians would like, was less shaky than many feared it might be later in the year. it was with understandable confidence Davis embarked on his third cam-
paign as leader of a party that has held uninterrupted power since 1943.
But after more than five weeks and $20 million worth of campaigning, Ontarians declined to be stampeded. They returned 58 PCS, moved the Liberals into second place with 34 seats and relegated the New Democrats to third with 33. “Davis won and lost,” growled former Tory premier John Robarts, in a succinct election-night summary. “Smith lost and won. Lewis lost and lost.” Indeed. Four days later, while members of his staff wept openly, a cool and smiling Lewis, 39, announced he’d had enough and would step down as leader as soon as the party picked a successor. A fall leadership convention seemed likely.
While Lewis was stepping down to pursue other interests—he mentioned disturbed children and the occupationalhealth field—Dr. Smith was stepping up. Most observers had felt Smith would lead the Liberals into oblivion (late in the campaign the cheeky Toronto Sun dismissed him as “a dink”), but on election night he was able to exult: “Plainly, I have not disappeared.” He promptly began to plan a new, more pugnacious approach to the Tories.
Davis, meanwhile, tried gallantly to mask his disappointment. He flew off to Florida to consider his future and rest body and voice, both weary after 40,000 miles and almost as many speeches. A week later he had banished all self-doubt, and declared he would stay on and work for national unity as the Premier of Ontario. “Anyway,” he laughed in an interview, “Maclean ’s hasn’t offered me a job.”
Davis’ determination to stay as leader of a party that has always managed to retire premiers one election too early rather than one too late hardly surprised any of the pretenders to his throne. Said Treasurer Darcy McKeough, whose thinly disguised leadership campaign has been annoying Davis for months: “I can’t imagine that there will be any pressure whatsoever for him to go.” Commented Attorney General Roy McMurtry, a Davis intimate and a man who is not without ambition: “Davis is the best man to lead Ontario right now and that’s all there is to it.”
The NDP was less lucky. Although, hawk-faced, razor-witted Lewis insisted that there were any number of possible NDP leaders—“the only qualification is that the next leader be rounded and cherubic of visage, so the cartoonists will have a terrible time”—there were few obvious candidates. Among the few: Hamilton fireman Ian Deans, Ottawa journalist Mike Cassidy, Thunder Bay schoolteacher Jim Foulds. Lewis, whose oratory and social conscience have brightened the Ontario political scene ever since he was first elected in 1963, will be sorely missed. Even Davis, who abhors socialism but admires Lewis anyway, seemed a trifle sad: “I
spoke to Stephen the day after the election and he told me his decision... You know, I understand. He knew it would be at least three or four years before he’d get another crack at it.”
The refusal of Smith and the Liberals to disappear meant, in effect, that Ontario has still not decided which of the two op-
position parties it prefers. In 1971, 1975 and again this month the NDP and Liberals ran neck-and-neck. “Of course, that’s good for us,” Davis chuckled. The Premier himself was partly consoled by the fact that he’d added almost four percentage points to the party’s share of the popular vote (just under 40%) and that he’d gained six seats.
Aside from the Liberals’ strength, perhaps the biggest surprise of the election was the failure of the so-called “nationalunity” issue to catch fire. “I was surprised when it didn’t,” Davis conceded from Florida. He had declared it to be a nonpartisan issue, assured Ontarians that Lewis and Smith were just as loyal to Canada as he was, and then proceeded to try to make it his own anyway, suggesting that both Canada and Ontario needed his strength and experience for the difficult days ahead. Ontario remained unconvinced. “I think federally Trudeau would have more success with it,” Davis said. Perhaps. But that is a calculation the Prime Minister and his advisers will have to make on their own.
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