The passage of power in Ontario

Ross Laver July 1 1985

The passage of power in Ontario

Ross Laver July 1 1985

The passage of power in Ontario

Ross Laver

Minutes after his minority Progressive Conservative government fell last week under the weight of a Liberal-New Democratic Party alliance, outgoing Ontario Premier Frank Miller was asked whether there was anything he would do differently if he had the chance. Laughing, the 58-year-old former chemical engineer, car salesman and resort operator responded with pantomime. He formed his fingers into the shape of a pistol, pointed them at his temple and, smiling broadly, squeezed the imaginary trigger. It was a moment of black humor in a week filled with pain and bitterness for Miller’s Conservatives, whose 72-to-52 defeat on a nonconfidence motion signalled the end of 42 years of uninterrupted Tory rule in Canada’s most populous province.

Less than 24 hours later Miller ensured a smooth transition to a new Liberal government under David Peterson, a 41-year-old lawyer and former businessman from London, Ont. Prior to last week’s vote Miller had vowed that if the two opposition parties brought down his four-month-old government, he would advise Lt.-Gov. John Black Aird, 62, to dissolve the legislature and call an election-even though the province voted on May 2. But the premier’s defiant attitude softened after his government fell. In a hand-delivered letter of resignation Miller simply informed Aird of his party’s defeat and recommended that Peterson and the Liberals be given a chance to govern. Explained Miller: “In my view, the people of Ontario do not wish an immediate election.”

Aird promptly summoned Peterson to the vice-regal apartment within the Queen’s Park legislative building in midtown Toronto. Said a beaming Peterson, who arrived within five minutes of Aird’s call: “I was there in a second and a half.” The two talked briefly over brandy, after which Miller joined them for a drink. Then Aird issued an announcement that he had invited Peterson to assume the premiership. Peterson, the lieutenant-governor said, had “assured me that he can form a government which will have the confidence of the legislative, assembly for a reasonable length of time.”

For Peterson, being sworn in this week as Ontario’s 20th premier was both a personal vindication and a daunting challenge. Only six months ago many observers had written off the Liberal leader as a bland and uninspiring politician. A Gallup poll last March indicated

that only 25 per cent of Ontarians surveyed could name the leader of the Liberal party. But in the weeks leading up to the May 2 election, Peterson, who emerged as a thoughtful and businesslike campaigner, outshone Miller and

NDP Leader Bob Rae and won support in urban ridings long dominated by the Tories. When the votes were counted, the Liberals had won the largest share of the vote—38 per cent compared to 37 per cent for the Conservatives—and had captured 48 seats in the 125-seat legislature. The Tories dropped to 52 from 72 seats while the NDP rose to 25 from 22.

Almost until the last moment Miller

insisted that there was a chance his minority administration could cling to power. But in fact the outcome was never in doubt. Four weeks ago, after 10 days of intense bargaining, Rae’s New Democrats signed an unprecedented four-page agreement with the Liberals in which they pledged to prop up a Peterson government in return for 29 promised reforms, including tougher environmental protection, equal pay laws for women, tighter rent controls and a ban on extra-billing by doctors. The Liberals promised not to call an election for at least two years, giving the financially troubled NDP a chance to replenish its coffers.

Despite his subsequent graciousness in defeat, Miller did not hand over the reins gladly. In a blistering, 32-minute address just before last week’s historic vote—his only speech in the legislature as premier—the Tory leader accused the New Democrats of “prostituting themselves for power.” And he warned that a Liberal government would imperil the province’s financial strength. Declared Miller: “This province and its people deserve better than a puppet Liberal premier with the NDP pulling the strings.” He also predicted that Peterson would violate his two-year pact with the NDP by calling an election as early as September. “We see the Liberals as the opportunists they really are,” he said. “We know that at the first opportunity they will engineer an excuse to run back to the polls so they can get the socialist monkey off their back.” For their part, both Peterson and Rae dismissed Miller’s charges as unfounded. Declared a solemn Peterson, squinting under the glare of television floodlights at a news conference: “I certainly have no intention of breaching any commitment I have made.” Rae called the Tory leader’s speech “incredibly cheesy and full of cheap shots.”

Peterson’s ascendancy in Ontario heartened Liberals across the country. For the past six years, since former premier Bennett Campbell lost control of the Prince Edward Island legislature, the Liberal party has failed to form a government in any of the 10 provinces. And after last September’s federal Tory landslide drove John Turner from office, the Liberals seemed moribund. But with Peterson taking over in Ontario and former premier Robert Bourassa poised to lead a Liberal resurgence in Quebec, party members were newly confident. Said federal House Leader Herb Gray: “I think we are seeing the beginning of a Liberal wave.”

The Tory fall in Ontario, coupled with Miller’s virulent attacks on his opponents, upset many Conservatives but left others philosophical. Federal Veterans Affairs Minister George Hees, for one, said that after 42 years in power the Ontario Tories had become complacent and deserved “a good shakeup.” And Mulroney, visiting his home town of Baie Comeau, Que., brushed aside Miller’s warning—delivered outside the legislature—that a Liberal government in Ontario would touch off an exodus of businesses from the province. Said Mulroney: “I have known Peterson very well for many years, and there is nothing in his behavior, so far as I know, that would inspire such a fear.”

Inevitably, Miller’s resounding defeat added to speculation that his leadership tenure may be brief. So far, only one Tory back-bencher, Bruce McCaffrey, has called on Miller publicly to resign. But privately many Conservative members criticized their leader, once an unabashed right winger, who in the dying days of his government veered to the left in a vain attempt to retain power. Some Tories say the party’s only hope for an early comeback is to replace Miller with a more clearly progressive candidate such as Education Minister Larry Grossman, 41, who finished only 77 votes behind Miller in last January’s leadership race and who is popular with many younger members of the party. But Grossman dismissed speculation about his leadership ambitions as hypo-

thetical, saying, “I will deal with that when I have to.”

For the Liberals, the immediate challenge is to ensure that the transfer of power is carried out with as few mistakes as possible. But that will not be easy, as Peterson himself admitted. “The one thing that worries me is our inexperience,” the Liberal leader said last week. “We have a wealth of raw talent, but it is going to take us a couple of months to figure it all out.” Among those certain to win a senior cabinet appointment is former Liberal leader Robert Nixon, whose father served as a Liberal premier for three months in 1943, after which the Tory dynasty was born under the late George Drew. The only political reign that lasted longer in Canada was Nova Scotia’s Liberals, from 1882 to 1925.

Although Peterson’s new government will encounter a civil service dominated by Tory appointees, the Liberals may benefit from its often-praised professionalism. The 79,000-member Queen’s Park bureaucracy has long been regarded as one of the most competent in the country, effectively adminis-

tering a $26.9-billion-a-year public organization that the Tories often referred to as Ontario, Inc. Peterson, perhaps wisely, sought to reassure the bureaucrats that his government planned no wholesale firings. Said Peterson: “We will not go after anyone with a broad axe.”

More ominous for Peterson was the Tories’ belief that they have laid a trap for the new government. Last year, just four months before he announced plans to step down, Davis stunned the legislature by announcing that beginning this fall the province would extend public funding of Roman Catholic schools to include Grades 11,12 and 13. That decision emerged as a key issue in the campaign and, most analysts believe, hurt the Tories in their rural strongholds— even though the Liberals and the NDP also supported the change. Still, the Tories stubbornly held off from introducing legislation to put the measure into effect. At the time he announced his alliance with Rae, Peterson said his government would proceed with the proposal as a priority item. Then Miller, on the brink of his government’s downfall last week, drew howls of outrage from the opposition benches by declaring that his party would fight any attempt by Peterson to “railroad” such a bill through the House this summer. Said Miller: “Such tactics are not what the public wants. Ontarians are used to consultation, not confrontation.”

Both the Liberals and the NDP remain deeply suspicious of Tory motives in refusing to fulfil Davis’s promise. Said NDP member Richard Johnston: “As long as the Catholic schools funding issue is simmering in the background, the Liberals are going to have to be extra careful about going back to the polls.” Another potential pitfall for the new government is the possibility of a doctors’ strike if, as promised, the Liberals move to bar physicians from charging more for services than the existing provisions of the province’s health insurance plan. As well, there are threats of major strikes this fall by public transit workers and teachers. The Liberals would face enormous public pressure to legislate strikers back to work—a move that would likely provoke a deep split in the tenuous Liberal-NDP alliance. For Peterson, the years of struggling in the political wilderness to win the coveted Ontario premiership may be trivial compared to the battles that lie ahead.