TEMPTED TO CALL A QUICK ELECTION, ONTARIO'S DAVID PETERSON LACKS AN OBVIOUS CAMPAIGN ISSUE
TEMPTED TO CALL A QUICK ELECTION, ONTARIO'S DAVID PETERSON LACKS AN OBVIOUS CAMPAIGN ISSUE
The indications that Ontario’s governing Liberals would soon propel the province’s voters into their third election in less than five years came almost daily last week. One of the strongest was on Wednesday, July 11, when Liberal party workers selected office space in downtown Toronto that could serve as a campaign headquarters. The next day, at a hotly contested Liberal nomination meeting in the suburban Toronto riding of Scarborough West, winning candidate Joe Pacione moved among the 600 party members, asking for campaign volunteers. “There’s going to be an election in September,” he told supporters. “We need your help starting tomorrow.” And on Friday morning, most of the other 80 nominated candidates assembled at a Toronto hotel to begin a two-day course in campaigning that the party had organized. Said Patrick Gossage, a longtime adviser to the Liberal party at the
federal and provincial levels: “We’re on as much of an election footing as we can be without actually being in one.”
With Premier David Peterson’s closest aides urging him to call an election for early September, those signs seemed to point to a late
summer campaign. The most popular election date among political handicappers: Sept. 13, which would require an election call by no later than Aug. 6. But lacking an obvious campaign issue, Peterson himself clearly remained undecided. As the tanned, 46-year-old premier left for a holiday at the end of the week, one top aide said that he was “anguishing” over several matters. Aside from trying to determine the Liberals’ program for seeking a second majority mandate, there was a question of whether there should be an election soon at all. With more than two years left in the party’s present five-year term, declared the senior Peterson aide, “there are a lot of people who are going to say, ‘Why do you have to go now?’ ”
In fact, as election speculation swirled about the Queen’s Park legislative building last week, NDP Opposition Leader Bob Rae and Conservative Leader Michael Harris both expressed that opinion publicly. For his part, Harris, who
assumed the leadership of his debt-ridden party just two months ago, said that it would be “presumptuous” on Peterson’s part to call an early election, which, he conceded, would be a severe test for the Tories (page 14). Indeed, the Liberals already enjoy a comfortable majority of 93 seats in the 130-seat provincial legislature, compared with the New Democrats’ 19 seats, the Tories’ 17, and one vacancy.
And if the party’s own polls are any indication, Ontario’s silver-haired premier appears so far to have survived a series of controversies. According to private surveys that Liberal pollster Martin Goldfarb conducted last month, the party has the support of 50 per cent of decided voters, compared with 28 per cent for the NDP and 20 per cent for the Conservatives. Still, the government must contend with the fallout from 51 charges over alleged fundraising abuses that have been laid against former Liberal-appointee Patricia Starr, the Liberal party itself and campaign workers.
Peterson is not expected to make a final decision on the election’s timing until he returns from his vacation on the shores of Lake Huron at the end of July. His advisers have already mapped out three alternative campaign tours for possible elections on Sept. 13, at the end of October, or next spring.
Still, the premier’s aides quietly floated the message that Peterson does not relish waiting until next year to call an election. One reason is economic uncertainty, with some analysts predicting that the federal government’s unpopular Goods and Services Tax, scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, could tip the country into a recession. But more importantly, say those close to the premier, Peterson fears that by mid-1991 the country will be engulfed in a renewed and poisonous debate over national unity. Such a spectacle could spark an anti-Quebec backlash in Ontario—a poor climate for electioneering. In the words of one adviser:
“We don’t want to be gearing up for an election in Ontario while the reordering of Canada is being negotiated between Quebec, Ottawa and the other provinces. It will be a supercharged atmosphere when all the nuts come out of the woodwork.”
The premier is also under pressure from top Liberals simply to capitalize on the party’s current popularity.
Said one senior campaign official: “When you have a hot product, you want to get it out on the market.” Other Liberals are encouraging Peterson to take advantage of the disarray among the once-powerful provincial Tories and inertia on the part of the NDP. Declared Liberal organizer Seymour Iseman: “The main thing here is that we have no opposition right now.”
Plainly, the Liberals enjoy substantial advan-
tages over their rivals in almost every category. In addition to their buoyant standing in the polls, the Liberals are flush with cash. The party raised almost $5 million during 1989 alone, according to reports filed with the provincial election commission. By contrast, the NDP collected only $2.1 million, and the Tories, while raising $3.4 million, are hampered by the costs of carrying a $4-million debt. “We have no war chest for a campaign,” said Harris. “It puts us in a very difficult position.”
Whichever campaign timetable Peterson chooses, he should be well prepared for the election. For the past month, senior advisers have been working 12-hour days and weekends to complete a party policy manual and campaign platform for the premier to digest on his holiday. Peterson was to spend the next two weeks with his wife, Shelley, and their three children at a rented cottage in the Lake Huron resort town of Grand Bend, Ont., 60 km northwest of his home town of London, studying the issues and calling political confidants for advice. Said one campaign official: “He will lie on the beach, spend some time with his family, and give the campaign organization a week’s notice if he decides to go.”
Liberal organizers, stung by criticism that their successful 1987 campaign lacked substance, insist that their next campaign will be based on clear policy proposals. Despite that commitment, senior party strategists had still not agreed last week on which issues should dominate the campaign. Some influential government members—including Attorney General Ian Scott, for one—were pressing Peterson to address the question of national unity. One proposal under discussion: that Peterson call a provincial inquiry to examine Ontario’s role in Confederation, in the wake of the Meech Lake accord’s failure and Quebec’s quest for more powers.
But other strategists, including campaign policy chairman and Toronto consultant David McNaughton, were arguing that the electorate is “Meeched out” by the constitutional debate. Instead, they were encouraging Peterson to run on a wideranging industrial strategy 2i designed to help Ontario ad^ just to free trade and maing tain its prosperity into the next century. Said one constitutional adviser to the premier: “The political advisers are telling Peterson, ‘Don’t go around saying how important Quebec is to Ontario and how closely you want to work with Bourassa in the middle of a campaign.’ ”
No matter how Peterson balances those opposing recommendations, other issues threaten to intrude on the Liberals’ agenda. Among them: the ongoing controversy surrounding Liberal fund raiser Patricia Starr,
who appears in court this week on 34 charges of making improper political donations with charity funds. Last month, police also laid 17 charges of violating the province’s electionspending laws against several Liberal party workers, including the party’s 1987 Metro Toronto campaign co-ordinator, John Webster. Then, on July 5, Starr filed a $3-million defamation suit against Peterson, Scott and the premier’s former principal secretary, Vince Borg, claiming that the government had exceeded its power by calling an inquiry into the scandal that was later struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. Vowed the NDP’s Rae last week: “The Starr affair will tie into a whole series of issues in this campaign.”
For his part, Harris promised to take the government to task for allegedly bungling Ontario’s Sunday shopping issue. Last year, the government passed a law empowering municipalities to ban shopping on Sundays. But last month, the Ontario Supreme Court struck the legislation down because it violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equality. While provincial officials await the outcome of an appeal of that decision, Ontario is left without a law governing Sunday openings. In that legal vacuum, many stores, including some supermarkets and major department stores, are operating seven days a week.
As a result of those controversies, some Liberals predicted that Peterson’s political coattails will be considerably shorter than they were in the last campaign, when his personal popularity carried many marginal candidates to victory. Privately, at least one newly nominated candidate complained that Peterson’s strong support for the Meech Lake accord alienated Ontario voters, who, according to polls, opposed the agreement by a 2 to 1 margin. “In 1987, Peterson was the greatest thing since sliced bread for a candidate, but he isn’t anymore,” said the Liberal, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “The voters aren’t stupid: they don’t like Meech and they don’t like Patti Starr.”
Despite the bruises that his government has suffered, however, Peterson’s personal approach to politics remains almost casual. In January, Peterson mused in an interview with The Toronto Star that he might leave politics while his family is still young and perhaps move to a Third World country such as Papua New Guinea to do foreign aid work. It was a rare glimpse of the private thoughts of a normally more guarded man, but one in keeping with his apparent attachment to family values. On most weekends, Peterson retreats with his family to a hobby farm near London, where they entertain old friends. In his spare time, Peterson does gardening chores at the home he purchased for $850,000 two years ago in the wealthy Toronto neighborhood of Rosedale, often mowing his own lawn. But with election rumors buzzing through the summer air last week, it was plain that politics, as much as family, would preoccupy Peterson’s two-week vacation.
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