Throughout his often-troubled 13year term as premier of Ontario, William Grenville Davis has been the living embodiment of the contradictions inherent in the label “Progressive Conservative.” Since he assumed power in 1971, Davis has glided back and forth, from issue to issue, across the broad centre of the political spectrum that Ontario’s ruling Tories have occupied for more than four decades. Davis intermittently has been either a left-leaning progressive or a right-leaning conservative, depending on his shrewd sense of what Ontario voters wanted and, occasionally, what they ought to have. Still, when he announced last week that he was stepping down while standing at the very summit of his political power and personal popularity, Davis was able to declare, “I like to think that as a government we have done a lot of things right.” Davis’s ideological inconsistency, which he calls the politics of pragmatism and which has been largely based on party opinion polls, has sometimes unsettled his own supporters. But his approach to governing has confounded his Liberal and New Democratic Party opponents and, augmented by his soothing demeanor and essential decency, it has kept the Ontario Tories in office during a generation of rapid social and
political change. It has also had a profound impact on the politics of other provinces and this year, especially, on Ottawa, where a Progressive Conservative government under Prime Minister Brian Muironey swept into power on Sept. 4 with the substantial assistance of Davis and the Ontario organization. Not surprisingly, Davis wants the provincial party to take a similar approach under his successor. He told a fundraising dinner in Toronto last week that he expected the Tories to remain “the most humane and pragmatic of those political parties seeking the support of the people.”
For the most part, Davis as premier has effectively managed a large and increasingly sophisticated government according to his own modest, middle-class values.
He has won four provincial elections, although two of them, in 1975 and 1977, resulted in pridewounding minority governments. And he has wielded enormous power as the head of the most
successful political organization in the country. But Davis has also known bitter political disappointment. Barely 18 months ago he considered seeking the federal Tory leadership—ultimately won by Muironey over former prime minister Joe Clark—but he was blocked by Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, whose fellow Westerners abhorred the Ontario premier’s position on the Constitution and energy pricing. A decade earlier the fetid winds of political scandal repeatedly buffeted Davis’s administration, causing him pain and embarassment even though his personal reputation remained untarnished.
For much of his career Davis encountered media opposition as severe as any he met in the Ontario legislature. Indeed, in the early 1970s, while the U.S. press was pursuing the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from the White House, the Toronto newspapers, particularly The Globe and, Mail, published an almost endless series of critical and occasionally accusatory articles implying incompetence or impropriety on the part of Davis cabinet ministers and Tory party officials. In 1973 allegations by the Globe resulted in an investigaton by a legislative committee into the circumstances under which Toronto builder Gerhard Moog—a Davis friend—received the contract to build a new $44-million head office for Ontario Hydro. The committee found nothing improper, but the affair damaged the government’s reputation.
Under attack, Davis once commented to thenQuebec Premier Robert Bourassa that the Ontario government at Queen’s Park was “only a $3 cab ride from The Globe and Mail head office” whereas Bourassa’s government in Quebec City was 250 km from the Montreal media. Said Davis: “There are days when I wish the capital of Ontario was Barrie—or, better yet, Kingston.”
To much of the press and many of his political opponents, Davis has been an enigma, a bland and even boring administrator who somehow managed to win elections. But, as he once declared with a wry smile, “Bland works.” Indeed, many of Davis’s critics eventually became convinced of what the Ontario electorate had seemed to know all along: that Davis is an ordinary, decent, family man capable of extraordinary achievements, including survival in the rough-andtumble world of politics.
The premier, 55, whose family home is on Main Street in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, unceasingly represents himself as a small-town politician. But he has played big-league politics with skill and patience ever since he was first elected to the Ontario legislature as a 30-year-old lawyer in 1959. He was a protégé of the late Tom Kennedy, who served briefly as premier of Ontario in 1948-49 between the administrations of George Drew and Leslie Frost. Marked early for political stardom, Davis became education minister in 1962, holding the portfolio for nine years, a period in which he oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the Ontario school system.
When John Robarts retired in 1971, Davis was the clear choice of the party establishment. But he was hardpressed for the leadership by the thenminister of mines and northern affairs, Allan Lawrence, now a federal Tory member of Parliament, whose spirited campaign was managed by Toronto advertising executive Norman Atkins. Davis won—by a scant 44 votes, on the
fourth ballot in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Within 48 hours Davis, already a pragmatist, recruited Atkins and other members of the Lawrence team to join such Tories as Toronto lawyer Edwin A. Goodman and fund raiser William Kelly in a political brains trust that has since become famous as the Big Blue Machine. Then, seven months after winning the leadership, Davis called a provincial election. Before the vote his “progressive” side led him to halt construction of the environmentally controversial Spadina Expressway in Toronto, using former Tory
president Dalton Camp’s line that “the streets belong to the people.” At the same time, Davis’s “conservative” side led him to refuse to increase provincial funding to the separate (Catholic) school system. He won a landslide.
During his first full term he moved to apply modern management technique to the Ontario government while establishing a structure of cabinet committees that most governments in Canada subsequently imitated. He also set up a largely unpopular system of regional government and, remembering the essential conservative nature of Ontario, deplored the emergence of a permissive society. In response to then-NDP Leader Stephen Lewis’s challenge and in search of urban votes, Davis introduced rent control in 1975. But the public was less than overwhelmed, and in a bitterly fought election Ontario returned a minority government. Two years later Davis went to the people again, and again was returned in a minority position.
From 1977 to 1981, Davis and the Tories resigned themselves to the minority situation and tried to provide solid, responsive government during a period of mounting economic difficulty. The reward came in 1981, when an increasingly popular Davis led his party to a solid majority, winning 70 of the province’s 125 seats. Shortly afterward, Davis began to contemplate retirement. This fall Davis, his wife, Kathleen, and their five children began discussing his options. The premier consulted closely with his brains trust. And eventually he announced on Thanksgiving Day that William Grenville Davis was going back to his roots, back to small-town Ontario, back to Brampton. For a while, at least.
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