Less than a year ago Liberal David Peterson held the thankless job of leader of the opposition in Ontario, with little apparent prospect of ever overturning the province’s fourdecade-old Conservative dynasty, then led by Premier William Davis. Indeed, a poll taken in February last year showed that only 25 per cent of Ontarians knew who the leader of the Liberal party was. Now, barely six months after taking office as premier, Peterson is attracting a surge of attention. In fact, so many reporters requested year-end interviews with the 42-yearold premier that he had to gather about 30 of them in the Ontario legislature’s oak-panelled cabinet chamber late last month for a standing-roomonly press conference at which he confidently fielded questions from a highbacked Victorian chair. Two days later a poll by Toronto-based Decima Research Ltd. showed that Peterson’s Liberals enjoyed the highest satisfaction rating of any government in the country, at 68 per cent.
Sworn in after the Liberals forced the resignation of Conservative Premier Frank Miller last June with the support of the New Democratic Party, Peterson has carved out a position as the country’s principal skeptic on free trade with the United States. On the home front, the Peterson government has moved at a pace not seen at Queen’s Park for years, producing a blizzard of new and often controversial regulations and legislation. Said University of Toronto political economist Stephen Clarkson: “It has been noticeably productive for the past six months, in stark contrast to the immobility of the last Davis years.” Added Peterson: “I am not in government just for the sake of surviving. I’m here to get things done.”
Among the measures enacted or introduced in the government’s first session, which resumes this week following the Christmas break:
• A crackdown on acid rain. Under the new regulations, the environment ministry has ordered the province’s four largest polluters, including provincially owned Ontario Hydro, to cut sulphur-dioxide emissions by twothirds of recorded 1980 levels by 1994.
• A law requiring polluters to clean
up toxic spills. Passed by the Tories in 1979 but proclaimed law only in November, the so-called spills bill makes owners, handlers and shippers of hazardous chemicals liable for the immediate costs of control and cleanups.
• Legislation proposing a strict ban on medicare extra billing. It would prohibit Ontario’s doctors from charging patients more than the fees set by the province’s health care insurance system. Officials of the 17,000-member Ontario Medical Association have raised the prospect of protest strikes.
• Tougher rent controls. The government has lowered the ceiling on permissible annual rent increases to four from six per cent. And pending legislation would extend current
controls on older and lower-rent dwelling units to cover units built since 1975 and those renting for more than $750 a month.
• Legislation that would provide for arbitration of first-contract labor disputes if the Ontario Labor Relations Board ruled that an employer had not made reasonable efforts to negotiate.
• Retroactive abolition of the coveted title of Queen’s Counsel (QC) for lawyers in the province. The title was awarded, largely on a patronage basis, to lawyers who had practised for 10 years or more and had solid political connections.
In addition, the government implemented an all-party plan to extend public financing to the final three grades of Roman Catholic high
schools, although that decision is being tested in the courts. Acting on another long-delayed issue, a joint government-industry fund of $16.7 million was set up to compensate two Northern Ontario Indian bands for mercury pollution that devasted their communities 15 years ago. The government introduced freedom-of-information legislation and produced a pre-legislation discussion paper on equal pay for
work of equal value. More recently, a new regulation against drunk drivers provided for a full year’s driving suspension on a first conviction and a two-year suspension on subsequent convictions.
Peterson’s hectic legislative pace has offended some people, especially in the business community. Vern Denholm, a vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, said he was concerned about the cost of the new Liberal measures. “We think it is a redeeming quality to be action-oriented, but they are antibusiness,” Denholm said.
At the same time, Peterson has won support from labor and some businesses for urging caution in negotiating a free trade pact with the United States. Armed with a report by Ontario’s ministry of industry and trade that predicts the loss of as many as 281,000 manufacturing jobs in Ontario, Peterson has pressed Ottawa “not to make a leap of faith before we know what we want to do.” At the first ministers’
conference in Halifax last November, Peterson forcefully argued the case for provincial involvement in the trade talks. And he swiftly forged an informal alliance on the issue with Quebec Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa after Bourassa’s election last month.
In part, the pace of Liberal activity at Queen’s Park is tactical. Peterson’s 48 Liberal MPPs are sustained in power by an alliance with the 25-member NDP
caucus led by Bob Rae. In an accord signed last May, the NDP pledged to support the Liberals for two years against the Tories, who hold 51 seats. The key conditions: that Peterson enact legislation that the NDP considers to be urgent and that he refrain from calling a snap election for two years. A liaison team representing both parties meets regularly to monitor progress.
To reinforce its activist image, the young government issued a 50-page year-end document outlining “Liberal government achievements.” Although most of the 98 items simply reiterate pledges—and avoid mention of tax increases in an October budget—Peterson said at year’s end that his government now has “the busiest legislative agenda I can possibly imagine.” For his part, the premier’s principal secretary, Hershell Ezrin, acknowledged that an activist government is “bound to get some people angry.”
Since Peterson and Rae signed their legislative accord, both have insisted that it does not constitute a coalition
government. However, the Liberals have followed the NDP agenda so closely that some New Democrats say a coalition exists in everything but name. Said writer and NDP activist Ian Orenstein in an open letter to Rae endorsed by 21 fellow New Democrats: “The pact with the Liberals dishonors the NDP’s tradition of political independence and is nothing more than coalition government.”
But Rae rejects the charge. “Compromise is not a dirty word,” he told Maclean's. “If we can execute influence and get progressive legislation, then I am feeling good.” Indeed, the NDP prompted provincial Treasurer Robert Nixon to cancel a gasoline tax increase proposed in his November budget when the party threatened to vote against it.
The Liberals also defend their arrangement with the NDP. Said Education Minister Sean Conway: “The relationship is a healthy one, but we are a minority government and govern accordingly. There is an agenda more comprehensive than the accord.” Still, the Liberals have been slow to deliver legislation on electoral pledges of their own, such as the sale of wine and beer in corner stores in addition to government-controlled outlets. For his part, Larry Grossman, Conservative leader since November, says that the government is simply copying NDP policies. “None of these items being introduced have been pet projects of Peterson’s,” he said.
According to political scientist Clarkson, Rae’s accord with the Liberals constitutes an important experiment that will be watched by all provincial NDP parties in opposition. Still, the accord has a strong element of risk for the NDP. If Peterson remains popular, the Liberals could lure votes from the NDP in the next election, endangering the future of the New Democrats in the province.
Tory House Leader Dennis Timbrell predicts Peterson will call an election before the two-year accord expires. “If and when he thinks it is to his benefit to stage a major confrontation and end the marriage, he will,” Timbrell said.
Peterson insists that he is not planning an early election. In fact, Maclean's has learned that the entire bureaucracy at Queen’s Park has been involved in a major overhaul and redefinition of Liberal government strategy. All ministries were ordered to define their priorities by the New Year—an indication that the Ontario Liberals, enjoying their first taste of power in more than 40 years, are not ready to risk a premature test at the polls.
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