When David Peterson was a student at the University of Toronto in the 1960s and working out in the gym to keep his weight down, the boxing coach suggested that he spar a few rounds with an opponent. “As my son would say, the guy punched my lights out,” the 45-year-old premier of Ontario recalled during an interview last week in his Toronto legislature office. But the beating gave him something to prove. The next day, he whipped another opponent and he continued to box until he left law school in 1967. Fighting formidable odds became his style.
Fifteen years later, he became leader of the Liberals in a legislature that had been dominated by the Progressive Conservatives since 1943. For the first three years of his leadership, Peterson was dismissed by political writers as ineffectual. But, in a 1985 election, he defeated a Tory dynasty older than he was and formed a minority government with the support of the New Democratic Party. And in the next election, on Sept. 10, 1987, he scored a knockout, winning 95 of 130 seats. But now, 16 months after his victory, Peterson is being crowded by an array of difficulties that threaten to force him into a defensive corner.
The challenges crowding Peterson with growing intensity in recent weeks are both provincial and national—and within his own administration. Despite its surging prosperity, Canada’s wealthiest and most populous province is embroiled in problems. Among them: the rising cost and deteriorating quality of both health care and education, a crisis over the soaring cost of housing in the cities and ugly allegations of police racism. On the national front, there are strained relations with the federal government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, disputes with Ottawa over the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and pressure from some premiers to reopen the 1987 Meech Lake accord on constitutional reform.
Within the Peterson government, the premier is facing difficult choices over personnel. Maclean’s has learned that Peterson plans to announce a major cabinet shuffle early in February. Among the expected changes: replacement of Chaviva Hosek as housing minister. As well, two of Peterson’s most senior ministers plan to leave government—Attorney General Ian Scott by the end of the year and, before the next election, provincial Treasurer Robert Nixon, a veteran of more than 26 years in the legislature. Late last year, Hershell Ezrin, who had served as Peterson’s top adviser on policy and strategy since 1982, left the premier’s office to work in the private sector (he is now The Molson Cos. Ltd. senior vice-president for public affairs). In recent days, Hosek, Scott and other ministers have come under attack not only inside the legislature but from outside groups and individuals.
For Peterson personally, those difficulties are compounded by resentment on the part of federal Liberals that he did not do enough to help the party during last fall’s federal election—despite his opposition to the FTA. At the same time, provincial critics charge that preoccupation with free trade may have diverted Peterson from working out a clear agenda for dealing with Ontario’s pressing problems.
Of all the issues confronting the Peterson government, the most widely publicized have been police conduct and health care. On Jan. 15, some 2,000 Metropolitan Toronto police officers held a rally to protest a manslaughter charge laid three days earlier against Const. David Deviney in the shooting death of a black man last August. The police called for the resignation of Attorney General Scott because, they claimed, Scott bowed to political pressure from such groups as the Black Action Defence Committee. Scott denied any interference in the case. Still, the incident worsened the already-strained relations among police, minority groups and the government. It followed a suburban Toronto case in which a black youth, Wade Lawson, 17, was shot to death on Dec. 8 and Peel Regional policeman Anthony Melaragni was charged with manslaughter.
Last week, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), which represents 17,000 physicians, launched a provincewide poster campaign blaming hospital-bed shortages and waiting lists for surgery on inadequate funding of health care. The poster campaign is part of a bitter public relations battle between the OMA and the Peterson government. Earlier in January, Health Minister Elinor Caplan—who has faced a daily barrage of criticism in the legislature over strains in Ontario’s hospital system—awarded doctors a marginal 1.75-percent increase in fees under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan and ordered all hospitals to balance their budgets.
As well, critics blame Housing Minister Hosek for a dearth of affordable housing in Toronto and other Ontario cities. The vacancy rate for Toronto apartments is negligible and the average cost of a new home in the city increased by about 30 per cent to $347,661 last year. Tenants’ groups and opposition politicians have charged that Hosek has done little to alleviate the crisis. Hosek countered that the Peterson government since 1985 has doubled provincial spending on housing for lower-income people, adding that affordable homes, from $150,000 to $200,000 apiece, are available in Metro Toronto’s outlying regions. That claim provoked opposition ridicule. Interim Conservative party leader Andrew Brandt said that younger Ontario residents “have given up the hope of ever owning a home.”
In addition to those disputes, the government is embroiled in controversy over legislation to permit municipalities to decide by local-option votes whether retail stores can open on Sundays. Critics predict that the bill will lead to wide-open sabbath shopping across the province and disrupt the traditional day of rest. Unions representing workers in the retail and service industries argue that the legislation fails to protect employees from being forced to work on Sundays against their will. And, last week, Emmett Cardinal Carter urged Catholics to lobby against Sunday shopping—an issue debated for more than a year and now in the final stages of approval by the Liberal majority. For their part, some large department stores opposed to Sunday shopping—citing social and economic reasons—have taken out full-page advertisements in newspapers, seeking public support. Peterson refused to retreat.
The government’s sometimes-defensive responses to the mounting problems in Ontario provoked questions among critics inside and outside the legislature about the Peterson team’s style. Said Graham White, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in Ontario politics: “It is hard not to share the sense that the momentum has run out. They are trying to keep away from as much controversy as they can, and that’s getting them into trouble.” NDP Leader Bob Rae, whose party is the official opposition in the legislature, claimed: “There is an overwhelming sense of a government on blocks. They do not have an agenda—reform or otherwise—so it is a very different mood around here from when they were first elected.”
For his part, Peterson dismisses suggestions that his government is faltering. During an interview with Maclean’s, Peterson said that the problems now facing Ontario are more difficult to resolve because they will alter the fiscal framework of the province in the future. “Every day you are advancing the agenda,” he said, as he sipped tea and smoked a cigarette. “You have to keep all your political energy on important things because there will always be little conflicts and disasters creeping up that consume the political energy of an organization. We are keeping our eyes always on the long-term agenda.”
But some of Peterson’s political opponents charge that the province’s current problems stem from precisely the opposite: that there is no agenda. John Switzer, president of the Urban Development Institute, a trade association representing more than 200 Ontario real estate developers, said, “I find it astounding that, in two years, the Liberals have not done much to reduce the provincial deficit during the best economic times this province has ever seen.” Added Switzer, a Liberal party supporter: “This government is so politically oriented that they’re putting their fingers in the dike and not looking at long-term resolutions.”
Still more troubling for Peterson may be the bitter aftermath of the free trade debate. During the 1987 provincial election campaign, Peterson stumped the province on an anti-free-trade platform, claiming that trade was the biggest issue. For the next year, some Queen’s Park observers claim, his office was obsessed by the free trade battle with Ottawa to the point where problems accumulated. Now, with free trade a reality, Peterson has lost a major battle and he is criticized for his handling of it. Said a federal Liberal MP, who asked to remain anonymous: “He certainly did not fight as hard for the party as he did for his brother Jim”—successful Liberal candidate in the Toronto riding of Willowdale, in the Nov. 21 federal election. And political scientist White observed: “There was a pretty clear promise by the Liberals during the 1987 provincial election that they were going to stand up for Ontario’s rights against a free trade deal. But the [Ontario] Liberals did not fight it tooth and nail during the federal election campaign.”
Others defend Peterson’s record both as premier and for his performance during the federal campaign. David MacNaughton, a longtime Liberal strategist who was chairman of Peterson’s 1987 campaign, said that the premier deliberately kept a low profile during the federal campaign because he did not want to make it look as though the anti-FTA effort was being driven solely by Ontario. “Ontario is always in a position that others see to be privileged,” MacNaughton said. Still, he conceded that the relationship between Ottawa and Queen’s Park has soured because of the anti-Ontario rhetoric during the campaign, particularly in Quebec. Said MacNaughton: “I think that there is a feeling within the Ontario Liberal party that the federal Conservatives have done nothing to stem the anti-Ontario rhetoric and, at best, have fostered it.”
For his part, Peterson denies having designs on a leading role in federal politics. But political observers claim to see signs that he is laying the groundwork for a campaign for the leadership of the federal Liberal party when John Turner decides to step down. Peterson spent much of his first two years in power forging alliances with the western premiers. He also boasts of cordial relations with Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, particularly because of his support for the Meech Lake accord. But Peterson’s personal relationship with Mulroney is cool, often acrimonious. The two men have known each other since 1969, when they met in Montreal.
Amid the unresolved problems besetting the seat of power at Queen’s Park, there are some signs that the Peterson government’s popularity has declined. A public opinion poll released last week by Environics Research Group Ltd., which was conducted after the Nov. 21 federal election, showed that the provincial Liberals have the support of 43 per cent of Ontario voters, down from the 48 per cent that the party enjoyed when it won the election in 1987 and that it maintained in a poll last August. The provincial Conservatives received 34 per cent, up from 25 per cent in August, and the NDP was third with 21 per cent. Although Peterson does not have to call an election before 1992, the onetime boxer is under growing pressure to adopt a more aggressive governing style.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.