The verbal volleys began as soon as Ontario Premier David Peterson called a provincial election for Sept. 6. At his campaign kickoff, the New Democratic Party’s sharptongued leader, Bob Rae, charged that Peterson “lied directly” when he pledged that his government would reduce auto insurance rates during the Liberals’ successful 1987 election race. Peterson’s most senior minister,
Treasurer Robert Nixon, retorted by referring to the NDP leader as “el pinko Bobby Rae.” Then, in a parry that drew howls of support at a union hall in Oshawa, Rae said that being insulted by Nixon was like being “savaged by a dead sheep.”
But those rhetorical flourishes have provided the only engaging political theatre in an otherwise hazy summer campaign that has
clearly failed to capture the attention of Ontario voters. Said NDP campaign director David Agnew: “A lot of people don’t even know that there is an election on.” Among those who do know, there is widespread questioning of the premier’s rationale for calling an election less
than three years into his mandate at an estimated cost to the public of $40 million. Echoing the charges by Rae and the new Conservative leader, Michael Harris, some voters accuse Peterson of political opportunism in staging an election before the province experiences the full impact of a slumping economy. Said Eva McMahon, a St. Catharines resident and traditional Liberal supporter who claims that she now plans to vote for a different party: “This election is totally uncalled for.” The election’s timing also means that a court appearance by former Liberal fund raiser Patricia Starr, who faces 11 fraud charges and 34 counts of violating election finances law, will begin as the campaign closes. The Starr case, which involves some government figures, has generated controversies for over a year.
So far, such controversies do not appear to have dented Peterson’s popularity. When he called the election, his Liberals enjoyed a wide lead in public opinion polls and held a 93-seat majority in the 130-seat legislature against the NDP’s 19 seats, the Tories’ 17 and one vacancy. With those advantages, the Liberal campaign has reflected the mood of a party hoping to win without a bruising fight. Peterson seems to deliberately ignore both his provincial opposition and their criticisms. And his most substantive speech during the first two weeks of the campaign tackled national issues. He challenged Quebec’s claim to be able to negotiate more autonomy directly with Ottawa alone and he implicitly criticized the federal government for weakness.
In that speech, delivered to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 10, Peterson staked out his position on the future of Confederation, declaring that “Ontario will not let its destiny be decided by the actions of others, or by the unchallenged drift of events.” He said he would appoint a nonpartisan public commission after the election to formulate Ontario’s position on Confederation. The objectives that should guide Canada’s constitutional future, he said, include enhanced ties among Canada’s regions and protection of the federal government’s powers. Said Peterson: “We cannot afford to see national powers and national institutions carved into 10 separate pieces.” The early days of the government’s reelection campaign have consisted largely of a Peterson tour dominated by main-streeting. In the tourist town of Niagara-on-the-Lake last week, Peterson led his entourage of placardwaving supporters, aides and reporters through four ice-cream shops, two fudge shops and a jam store. At almost every campaign stop, Peterson has been greeted by hecklers. At his own nomination meeting in London Centre, he lashed out at an antipoverty demonstrator who disrupted proceedings. Snapped the premier: “Some day you’re going to grow
up and find a responsible job.” Party supporters dragged the protester out of the hall.
Meanwhile, some Liberal candidates express concern that the support reflected in opinion polls may be soft. An Environics poll taken before the election call pegged Liberal support at 50 per cent, compared with 26 for the NDP and 22 for the Conservatives. But some Liberal candidates are taking nothing for granted. Scarborough West candidate Joe Pacione, for one, has installed a computerized hotline that allows callers to select prerecorded messages stating his own views on various issues. But, said Pacione: “I don’t see this 50 per cent they’re talking about. It’s more like 20 at the door. The biggest thing I’m hearing is that we didn’t need to call an election.”
Such attitudes have galvanized the NDP. Rae, who has appeared stiff in previous campaigns, has shown a new sense of political timing. Since the campaign began on July 30, he has conducted an orchestrated series of attacks on the government against symbolic backdrops such as landfill sites and run-down public housing projects. And the party is relying on Rae’s strength as a campaigner to help several new candidates. In Toronto’s Riverdale, where city councillor Marilyn Churley is running to replace retiring New Democrat MPP David Reville, Rae greeted shopkeepers and ate souvlaki. Said dry cleaner owner Bill Mosios, in a thick Greek accent: “You should be president.” Responded Rae: “Premier would be a good start.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are struggling to overcome organizational difficulties. At the end of last week, the party still had not found enough candidates to run in all of the province’s 130 ridings. In Sault Ste. Marie, former Tory candidate Udo Rauk declined to run again and last week urged locals to vote Liberal—in order for the city to receive more government favors. And the Tories suffered an embarrassing controversy over their initial choice of a campaign theme song, the Rolling Stones’ hit Start Me Up. Campaign chairman John Laschinger said that he replaced that song with a new one last week—the Beatles’ Tax Man—after reporters catalogued the many explicit sexual references contained in the original choice. Said Harris: “I’m not a good one at knowing the lyrics. It’s got a nice tempo that I can march in time to— and that’s what counts for me.”
The two opposition camps clearly regard a debate between the three leaders, scheduled for Aug. 20, as an opportunity to tarnish some of Peterson’s lustre. The premier is preparing for the contest by meeting with advisers and poring over briefing books. Among his coaches: consultant Patrick Gossage, press secretary to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Harris’s handlers plan to set up a mock studio with aides playing the parts of his two opponents and the media. An aide to the NDP leader said Rae would not undertake any special preparations for the showdown and instead would likely take a day off to golf. Until then, the major challenge facing the candidates may well be to simply arouse the public’s interest in the election.
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