The Happy Hoofers

Warren Gerard March 16 1981

The Happy Hoofers

Warren Gerard March 16 1981

The Happy Hoofers


Warren Gerard

This was the only night to remember of the entire Ontario election campaign. Something happened. There was pink-cheeked Premier William Davis, 51, looking leaner and fitter than he has in years, puffing on his ever-present prop, a black briar pipe, with wife, Kathleen, hanging on his raincoated arm, arriving at his own nomination anointment in Brampton. But it wasn’t quite the crowning the advance men had in mind. It was better. The fawning faithful were there in droves, but so was a small and loud group of hospital workers, bearing placards and chanting abuse. Kathleen was jostled in the squeeze and, visibly shaken, grabbed her husband’s arm. The couple was surrounded by cops and party workers. It was great TV.

Then no sooner had Davis started his acceptance speech than a handful of the hospital workers shouted: “Strike! Strike! Strike!” They were angry because the government had crushed their illegal strike across the province, then suspended 2,500 of them and fired some union leaders. The 500 Tory partisans at the meeting shouted back: “Davis! Davis! Davis!” It was an opportunity Davis didn’t miss. Red-faced and flustered, his own anger showing, probably because his wife was pushed, Davis said, “You will not intimidate me.”

He went on with a law-and-order lecture: “The law of this province is very clear. You may disagree with it, but that’s the law. The law is simple. The law says hospital workers do not have the right to strike.” A couple of days later, party polls told the Conservatives that voters liked what they heard: Davis looked like a leader.

What makes this campaign of more than passing and, indeed, just provincial interest is that, whether Ontarians and their would-be leaders like it or not, Ontario is a far weep from the fat-cat province it had long been and still was as recently as the late 1970s. Drained of

resources while newfound treasure hoards abound to the west and east, Ontario had done little to augment its reliance on manufacturing—a reliance that has made it easy for the centre of power to slip away toward the Alberta foothills. The province gives the pained impression of standing still — and half asleep at that. Small wonder Tory strategists adored Davis’ stern performance in Brampton.

They have put all their money on Davis and leadership as the issue in the March 19 Ontario election, when they hope to win back the majority they lost in 1975 and couldn’t win in the 1977 election.* And leadership has become the issue despite the efforts of Liberal

leader Dr. Stuart Smith, a psychiatrist, and New Democrat leader Michael Cassidy, a former journalist, to make Ontario’s slow-motion economy the issue. The Tories decided on their strategy— and it seems to be working—after their polls told them Davis was perceived to be the best leader by far of the three. They rolled out their Big Blue Machine and slickly packaged Davis as a leader of national stature.

He even came out of the recent national PC meeting in Ottawa smelling of success, despite the fact that the party hard-core faithful remain angry with him for jumping into a foxhole with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau last year in the constutional war while Joe Clark was put on notice. On the campaign trail, Davis hasn’t made a slip, murmuring optimistic noises about the future of Ontario and handing out millions of dollars in promises. His performance prompted a highly placed

*Standings at dissolution: PCs 58, Liberals 3i\, NDP 33.

Davis hasn't made a slip, murmuring optimistically about the future, handing out millions in promises.

Smith is a highly articulate speaker, but he has a bitchy, petulant side.

NDPer to remark, “The son of a bitch is so good I almost feel like voting for him.”

He agreed to a TV debate and set a deadline early in the 44-day election for the networks to agree on a format, but when they couldn’t and the deadline passed he cancelled the debate. It looked suspiciously prearranged—some even said fixed—and left Smith and Cassidy without the exposure they desperately needed in this indoor winter election.

Yet they are the ones dealing with the

issue of Ontario’s economic performance. Cassidy, who is about as colorful as a deep sleep on the stump, plods along, lecturing mainly to the committed on the virtues of Crown corporations, maintenance of rent controls (which he says the Tories will probably abolish), a higher minimum wage and the dangers posed by the increased numbers of doctors billing over the medicare fee schedule. It’s all important, well-researched stuff, but Cassidy doesn’t have the fire in his belly to put it over as did Stephen Lewis, the man he succeeded as leader three years ago.

Smith is something else. He’s a highly articulate speaker and has a good television presence, which is perhaps a reason why the TV debate never took place, but he has a bitchy, petulant side to him, as frequently shown in his impatience with the press. He told reporters before the election was called that if he didn’t win, he would quit, which prompted Tories to say, why vote for Smith, he’s going to quit anyway.

He gressively, that started Ontario the telling had campaign voters slipped agto 10th and last place in economic growth among the provinces, and then the statistical war started. Smith based his figures on Conference Board of Canada statistics, but Davis said the board wasn’t worth listening to—even though the Ontario government pays $100,000 a year to listen to it—because, he said, among 20 economic forecasting agencies in Canada, the board is rated 20th for accuracy. Industry and Tourism Minister Larry Grossman got into the act when he said Ontario wasn’t 10th—it was sixth. That statistic was dropped. Davis started calling Smith “Dr. Negative,” and Hugh Segal, Davis’ special adviser, pulled yet another Tory poll out of his hat last week that claimed 86 per cent of the voters didn’t believe Ontario is 10th and last and that fewer than three per cent thought the provincial government was to blame for all Ontario’s economic problems. “I know people aren’t buying ‘10th and last,’ ” said a gleeful Segal, “and they may end up shooting the messenger.”

Nevertheless, Smith kept dishing out the bad news, blaming Davis for the economic mess and calling for a change after 37 continuous years of Tory rule (see box, page 23). At one point in the campaign, Smith said he wouldn’t talk about anything but the economic issue

and he wouldn’t respond to questions on other issues. The press dubbed him “Dr. Mum.”

Davis, meanwhile, has been defending Ontario’s economic performance, saying things are bad everywhere because of high inflation, high interest rates and high energy costs. He predicts a oneto two-per-cent growth in real domestic product this year, compared with the Conference Board’s .4per-cent forecast. He makes a point of reminding Ontario’s people that they rank third in Canada in personal income per capita and that the unemployment rate is 6.6 per cent vs. 7.3 per cent nationally. He boasts that Ontario has created 100,000 new jobs each year on the average over the past five years—a figure that dropped to 68,000 last year because of the recession in general and layoffs in the auto industry in particular. And he rejects Smith’s 10th-andlast rhetoric because “it is not valid to compare Ontario with resource economies of the West and a much smaller economy such as Prince Edward Island.”

It's all important stuff\ but Cassidy doesn't have the fíre in his belly to put it over.

When Davis talks about Smith, his face tightens. The two men have an enormous dislike for each other. Sitting in the back of his own campaign bus (the press ride in a separate bus), Davis told Maclean's: “When the leader of the Opposition says we have a crummy manufacturing sector he’s not criticizing me, he’s criticizing the small businessman, the small and the big industry right across this province.”

In the past fortnight, Smith has tried to shift his campaign’s direction, suggesting alternatives to Davis’ $1.5-billion economic blueprint (BILD) for the province, announced a week before the election was called. But Smith’s program is vague, without a price tag and it’s getting little attention. He told a rally in Ottawa that government must ask business: “What are the products going to be that we figure we can sell to the rest of the world? What are the problems you have in developing these products? What help do you need in retooling these industries? What help do you need in terms of getting the product into the world market?”

It’s even in the not seemed much to campaign. to be go losing Asked on, and interest what Smith a Liberal government’s deficit would be under his proposed economic platform, Smith said the public would have to “wait and see. Sooner or later, if our economy doesn’t grow, it won’t matter if our deficit is $1 billion or $800 billion. It’s going to be a rather academic problem.”

Other issues have seized little attention. It seemed that the $35-million collapse of Astra Trust and Re-Mor Investment companies would become a bigger issue than it did. Just before the election was called on Feb. 2, the legislature’s justice committee issued a report finding “serious maladministration” of provincial laws which should have protected investors. Protesters picketed Davis’ meetings, demanding that the government reimburse investors for their losses, but last week the issue took on a different complexion when police in Niagara Falls arrested eight people and charged them with conspiracy to defraud the public of $35 million and conspiracy to steal $35 million.

Davis has appeared successful in defusing issues one by one while keeping to his issue of leadership. He took another step last week to plug the holes in his campaign with an emotional, truly loyal address to the party faithful at an Empire Club of Canada luncheon. Tory workers are telling the premier what he already knew, that hard-core Conservatives are appalled by his alliance with Trudeau. He criticized Trudeau for his confrontation tactics on the constitutional issue and said that it “could have been handled in a more effective, less provocative way.” Then, in defence of the Crown, he said, “This country will only become a republic over my deceased political body.”

It is more than likely Smith who’s finished. As he told Maclean's: “You know, we’ve been 38 years in the wilderness. If people still leave us there they can’t honestly expect that serious professional individuals of ability are going to sit there forever, waiting, just in case the people 60 years from now might change their minds.”

As the election entered its final days, Davis appeared on the verge of forming the majority government that has eluded him in the past two elections. Careful not to ask for a majority, Davis has been calling for a “mandate” so as not to remind people of his party’s longevity. Insiders at both Tory and NDP headquarters, however, see 65 seats for Davis, enough for a bare majority.

With such a result, the West will hope, perhaps wistfully, that Davis will tone down his views on energy pricing, views that are closer to the consumer than the companies. For Ottawa, Davis’ essential support on the constitution may dwindle; for Davis, backing Trudeau may have been as much for Liberal votes as for patriotism or patriation.

Another minority might mean he would quit or look at any coming vacancy in the federal party leadership. Segal disagrees with both possibilities: “I think he could go on being premier for another 10 years if the people would have him. He enjoys the job.” Q