It was to be Orwell’s year, but 1984 in Canada has been the Year of the Conservative Politician. At the federal level Canadians witnessed the final departure of Pierre Trudeau, the spectacular flameout of John Turner and the triumphant arrival of Brian Mulroney. Last week Premier William Davis—godfather of Progressive Conservatives in Ontario and much of the rest of Canada—moved briefly into the spotlight and left the stage to a threemonth political struggle to decide who will run Canada’s lynchpin province.
The outcome of the struggle in Ontario is a matter of national import, as much as the rest of the country might disdain the notion. Despite the thrusting growth of the West, an assertive Quebec and the new ambitions of Atlantic Canada, Ontario retains its role as political pivot and economic engine of the country—the most populous, most industrialized and most powerful part of the Canadian Confederation. And while its Tory premiers have been among the blandest in the country, Ontario’s leader has been—as if by historical instinct and with nothing as crass as an open claim—a kind of ex officio first among 10 equals provincially and, when it comes to issues of national unity, an indispensable broker for compromise.
For Davis, the latest in the line of lowkey Ontario Tory leaders, his unusually emotional announcement on Thanksgiving Day that he intends to retire after 13 years in power brought a wave of tributes and good wishes from friends and political enemies (page 17). It also marked the start of the race to succeed him as boss of a province that the Conservatives have ruled for 41 uninterrupted years. Two nights later, at a fund-raising dinner originally planned to help launch a widely expected fall election campaign, Davis strongly urged his party to maintain power by avoiding “the ideological prisons of the left or right”—a formula that Prime Minister Mulroney adopted with stunning success in the federal campaign. His successor, Davis declared, should follow the Tory tradition of “decency, compassion, civility, tolerance and sensitivity.”
The list of would-be successors was lengthy (page 18). At stake, apart from the $83,675-a-year premiership, is the legacy of influencing national affairs, including control of Canada’s most successful political organization—the vaunted Big Blue Machine. There is, as well, a vast patronage network that the government uses to reward party followers in thousands of jobs across the province, and Davis’s own political legacy. That includes—on the plus side—a record of generally popular, moderately progressive legislation and an efficient bureaucracy.
On the debit side is a list of lingering problems. Among them: increasing public unhappiness with the huge, costly and academically lacklustre school system that Davis largely built as education minister during the 1960s; a $19-
billion debt owed by Ontario Hydro, a major part of which was spent in the 1970s developing problem-plagued nuclear power stations; and a sensational and still-unresolved affair involving three trust companies that the Davis government seized in January, 1983, after contentious real estate deals involving some 11,000 Toronto apartment units. Also awaiting his successor is the delicate task of carrying out Davis’s recent decision to extend full public financing to Ontario’s separate (Roman Catholic) school system, a 180-degree reversal of the policy Davis decreed when he first assumed power in 1971.
Davis’s retirement announcement ended 10 days of intense speculation within the party and in the media about his intentions. That followed weeks of personal agonizing and lengthy discussions with his wife, Kathleen, as well as his closest political friends—including Toronto advertising executive Norman Atkins, who organized Mulroney’s federal campaign, former aide Hugh Segal and Attorney General Roy McMurtry, all of whom urged Davis to stay in office. Davis, 55, was torn between his own wish to step down after 25 years in the legislature and his party’s hope that he would lead them into another election —and win another majority—before retiring. But during their string of election victories the Tories have held power by faithfully following two maxims. The first: divide and rule, which means keeping the antigovernment vote split between the opposition Liberals and New Democrats. The second: always retire the leader one election too soon, rather than an election too late.
From the time of the Tories’ 1943 electoral victory under George Drew, a six-month seat-warming spell by Thomas L. Kennedy (1948-1949) and through the reigns of Premiers Leslie Frost (1949-1961) and John Robarts (19611971) into the Davis era, the Ontario Conservative party has maintained its grip also by a kind of schizoid governance that satisfied both the rural hinterlands of the province and Ontario’s polyglot and fast-growing cities. Blessed with a solid agricultural and industrial base and the nation’s largest and most highly skilled work force, the Tories have worked conscientiously to keep the province’s industries in good health, while moving warily into social services such as medicare in 1969. And while stopping short of declaring Ontario officially bilingual, the Tories under Davis have gradually extended services to the province’s 475,000 francophones. Typically, after strictly enforcing prohibitive laws on the sale of alcohol for years, Queen’s Park through the 1960s and 1970s gradually loosened up—to the point where the province’s legendary “blue laws” are only a memory today.
On the national level, Ontario’s Tories have made a significant, if understated, contribution to the cause of Canadian unity. In part, that thrust has grown out of an ingrained assumption that citizens of other provinces tend to find objectionable: the bedrock Tory belief that Ontario is, with Quebec, the fulcrum of Confederation and therefore has a historic obligation to hold the country together, especially when Quebec is Other-
wise inclined. Acting in that spirit, Robarts in 1967 staged the historic “Confederation of Tomorrow” conference in Toronto at which Canada’s premiers jointly considered the growing nationalist strains evident in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and launched discussions that produced a new national constitution 15 years later—after Davis’s dramatic 1981 support of Ottawa’s constitutional patriation plan helped break a provincial logjam. Similarly, after the 1970 PLQ crisis in Quebec, Robarts made a point of holding friendly meetings with Premier Robert Bourassa at a time when the rest of Canada was beginning to despair of Bourassa’s government —and his province. In a gesture toward Western Canada, Davis’s government joined with Ottawa in 1975 to help save Alberta’s Syncrude oil sands project from collapsing after the U.S.-owned Atlantic Richfield Co. pulled out its financing.
Under Davis the Ontario Tory political machine has also extended its reach to other provinces. In recent years members of the informal team of expert election organizers have offered advice and skills to other Conservative parties in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. One former Ontario party worker, Patrick Kinsella, now runs Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett’s office in British Columbia. And, most recently, Davis loyalists, including Atkins, helped the federal Tories achieve their massive Sept. 4 majority.
But when Davis pondered whether to run for the federal Tory leadership in 1983, the machine was unable to guarantee a victory. It could not translate Ontario’s potent capacity to influence national politics into overt personal power federally. Not only was Davis opposed by western Tories but he was unable to develop significant Quebec support—at least partly because he remains unilingual after repeated attempts to acquire French. Political opponents were inclined to see fundamental flaws in Ontario Toryism. Former Ontario Liberal leader Robert Nixon, for one, criticized Davis’s administration as cautious and self-serving, without a guiding philosophy beyond pragmatism. Said Nixon: “He has been very careful not to raise too much public interest in his affairs, so he has been able to stay in power. The best politics to him is no politics.” Clare Westcott, a Davis special assistant for more than 20 years who announced his own retirement last month, offered a more charitable interpretation of the Ontario Tory style: “You have to ask yourself if a political philosophy is so absolutely relevant these days. Policies and platforms change. If a political party maintains an absolute philosophy, you will be able to count the amount of time it will stay in office.”
The ability to change while appearing unchanging and to make pragmatism a principle of governance has not only kept the Ontario Conservatives in power provincially but has enabled them to color the national political process. The genius of the party—and the challenge it faces again in choosing a new chief —is its ability to find leaders who are faithful to a formula tested through more than 40 years.^
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