CANADA

SHOCK WAVES

ONTARIO EJECTS THE LIBERALS AND ELECTS ITS FIRST-EVER NDP GOVERNMENT

PEETER KOPVILLEM September 17 1990
CANADA

SHOCK WAVES

ONTARIO EJECTS THE LIBERALS AND ELECTS ITS FIRST-EVER NDP GOVERNMENT

PEETER KOPVILLEM September 17 1990

Premier-elect Rae with wife Arlene; Peterson and wife Shelley (right): voters registered their distrust of politicians

The shouted chorus arose spontaneously among the New Democrats gathered at Robert Rae’s campaign headquarters in a northwest Toronto banquet hall. “We want the premier,” Rae’s elated supporters chanted, as they waited for the first socialist ever to be elected premier in Ontario. Then, when Rae arrived, the crowd erupted in shouts of “Premier Bob, Premier Bob.” From the look of dazed euphoria on Rae’s bespectacled face as he waited for the chanting to subside, the new title was taking time to sink in. So too, plainly, was the reality of the convincing sweep in the Sept. 6 election that left the New Democratic Party at the helm of a province with 37 per cent of Canada's population, controlling 40 per cent of the national economy. Conceded an exuberant Rae in his victory speech: “I did not expect this result.” 

Crushing: Few Ontarians did. Certainly, the outcome took Liberal Premier David Peterson by surprise. Facing the crushing loss of more than 50 Liberal seats—including his own in London Centre—a deeply shaken Peterson stunned his supporters by announcing that he will resign as Liberal leader. It was Peterson whose formation of a minority government— with NDP support—in 1985 ended 42 years of dynastic Conservative rule in Ontario. Two years later, he went on to win a landslide victory, taking 95 of the legislature’s 130 seats—while the New Democrats formed the official Opposition with 19, leaving the Tories with 16. Last week, the election of the 42-yearold Rae at the head of the province’s first NDP government completed Ontario’s transformation from a bastion of Tory stability. Some analysts said that the province has become a bellwether of political change, where shifting allegiances hold implications for voters—and politicians—across the country.

Distrust: Many of those analysts noted the politically lethal effect of what has been called “the Mulroney factor.” Peterson had supported Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney throughout the divisive debate over the Meech Lake constitutional accord. As a result, Mulroney’s widespread unpopularity hurt the Liberal premier as well. It may also have hampered the efforts of the provincial Tories, under new leader Michael Harris, to stage a comeback. In the end, the Tories, who relentlessly attacked the Peterson government for high taxes, elicited voter sympathy but not votes as the electorate turned its back on the Liberals. The Conservatives picked up a mere three seats, increasing their standing to 20. The Liberals ended the night with 36 seats, down from 93 when the election was called. And Rae’s NDP, which had just 19 seats in the past legislature, surged to a decisive majority with 74 seats.

The dramatic upset appeared to reflect a deep well of distrust in the electorate—directed at politicians in general and the political process itself. Many voters said that the election call itself, less than three years into the Liberals’ five-year mandate, was an attempt by Peterson to capitalize on his party’s and his own perceived popularity.

And with the failure of Conservative and Liberal politicians alike to resolve corrosive national issues, such as constitutional reform, many voters responded by turning to the one major party that did not—at least in Ontario—carry the baggage of a term in office.

Jubilant: Conservative pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Decima Research Ltd., said that the results represented not so much a move towards socialism as a shift away from the traditional parties. Added Gregg: “Voters are saying to the politicians who held power in the 1980s, ‘A pox on all your houses.’ ”

In doing so, Ontarians chose as their next leader an intensely private family man who, friends say, never gives up. Remarked Toronto lawyer Leonard Wise, a friend of Rae’s for more than two decades: “People do not realize how strong he is. The guy is made of steel.” And despite their apparent distrust of other politicians, they also chose a premier committed to extending the reach of government into their daily lives—with state-run auto insurance, stronger pay-equity legislation, a higher minimum wage and other measures.

The look of disbelief on the jubilant faces of many New Democrats on election night suggested that even they had not anticipated the massive swing. “It is a fantasy come true,” said Stephen Lewis, former UN ambassador and one of Rae’s predecessors as Ontario NDP leader, who now is in charge of the new leader’s transition team. But, for the Liberals, it was a nightmare. In his suite at London’s Radisson Hotel, Peterson was visibly nervous as he watched TV accounts and realized the extent of the defeat that the Liberals had begun to anticipate in the final week of the campaign. Then, appearing before what was to have been a victory celebration, Peterson announced to his supporters that he was stepping down as Liberal leader—and accepted full blame for his party’s massive loss. “Any shortcomings were mine,” he said.

Rumors: Indeed, it had become increasingly clear from public and party polls in the final days that Peterson’s early election call would likely prove to be the worst political miscalculation of his career. Yet, until the campaign began on July 30, the arguments in favor of the early vote had appeared compelling. Had Peterson waited for a later date, he might well have found himself fighting an election during a recession. Another consideration was the country’s constitutional future in the wake of the Meech Lake accord’s failure. With Quebec already looking towards a fresh round of constitutional demands, it seemed prudent to hold an election during the relative calm of summer— rather than later, when fresh constitutional divisions threatened to rack the country. But the premier never seemed able to make the case for an early vote convincingly. Peterson also underestimated the NDP’s readiness to launch an effective campaign of its own.

Conservative Harris and family: more seats-but less of the vote

In part, that readiness resulted from rumors that raced through Ontario political circles in the spring that Peterson was about to call an even earlier election. Because of that, Rae’s party had already prepared its election strategy, even developing key “media lines”—the slogans that would form the heart of the party’s appeal for support. But the party’s early campaign optimism arose as well from the revitalized energies of its leader. Overcoming a period of lassitude and gloom that followed a string of personal tragedies—including the death of his younger brother, David, of cancer in June, 1989—Rae propelled himself into the campaign with a vigor that startled some observers. Rae told Maclean’s during the campaign that he had “decided that the best tribute to my brother was to pull up my socks.”

Trap: Rae paid that tribute by conducting a campaign of clockwork precision and pointed effectiveness.

Throughout its 37 days, he tirelessly attacked “the Peterson government.” Early in the campaign, he bluntly accused Peterson of “lying.” Later, he portrayed the Liberal premier as the pawn of big business. Among his favorite targets was the Liberal record on the environment. Returning to the issue last week, he scheduled a helicopter flight over the Hamilton-area community of Hagersville, where a 17-day fire at a tire dump last February forced hundreds of residents from their homes— providing dramatic TV pictures. Noting that the Liberals had instituted a $5 tax on new tires last year and had promised that the money would be used for tire disposal, Rae charged, “They used the environment as an excuse to raise the tax—and then they did not invest the money to deal with the problem.”

At the same time, Rae avoided making clear commitments of his own. Said his campaign director, David Agnew: “We were determined not to fall into the trap of making a promise a day.” But Rae did make some pledges. They included a far-reaching economic agenda that would cost $4.2 billion, to be financed at least in part by a minimum eight-per-cent tax on business profits—and from a $1-billion provincial deficit for the next two years. Among Rae’s other economic promises: to limit rent increases to the rate of inflation, and to tax individual incomes earned from real estate speculation and inheritances of more than $1 million.

Thumbs-up: Those plans generated apprehension among many business leaders. But throughout the campaign, the enthusiastic welcome that voters gave to Rae suggested that he was striking a responsive chord. As the leaders crisscrossed the province, bystanders frequently greeted Rae’s tour buses with thumbs-up signs. In stark contrast, Peterson’s buses frequently attracted considerably ruder gestures.

Indeed, some key Liberal organizers said that they began to see problems very early in the campaign. Campaign strategy chairman David MacNaughton, for one, noted that canvassers often reported voters to be “quiet and polite.” Said MacNaughton last week: “If they are quiet and polite, you know you are in big trouble.” The Liberals attempted to recapture their momentum with promises—notably a hastily prepared, mid-campaign pledge by Peterson to lower the province’s eight-per-cent sales tax to seven per cent for at least a year. But many voters said that was another opportunistic attempt to buy votes.

Then, in the Aug. 27 issue of Maclean’s, Conservative campaign chairman John Laschinger revealed that his private polling showed that Liberal popularity had fallen 10 points from its 50-per-cent support level at the start of the campaign. That trend was confirmed in an Aug. 28 Environics Research Group Ltd. poll. And a mere four days later, and less than a week before the election, a poll conducted by the Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Group gave the New Democrats a decisive lead with 38-percent support among decided voters, compared with the Liberals’ 34 and the Tories’ 24. Those figures were remarkably close to the actual popular vote: NDP 37.6 per cent; Liberals 32.4 per cent; Tories 23.5 per cent. 

NDP stalwarts White (left) and Lewis: ‘It is a fantasy come true’

Bitter: Those polls rocked the Peterson campaign—and sparked a string of bitter denunciations as the premier took the offensive, warning against what he called the irresponsible socialism of the NDP. “This is not the time to gamble on some cockamamie socialist view of how to run this province,” he declared. The NDP, he claimed, would plunge the province into a deep and painful recession. “You know what recessions are?” Peterson asked. “It’s when you don’t have a job. It’s when your kids don’t have enough to eat. You think about that.”

On Thursday night, it became clear that if the voters had thought about Peterson’s warnings, they had rejected them. But as the number of ridings reporting NDP victories climbed relentlessly, it was also evident that the charges of political opportunism and predatory taxation that were directed against the Peterson campaign were not enough to explain the Liberals’ crushing loss. Some experts noted that Peterson’s constitutional alliance with Mulroney, whose federal Conservatives are currently running a poor third in opinion polls, had proved to be a political albatross. Said Rand Dyck, a professor of political science at Laurentian University in Sudbury: “The feelings towards the unpopular Mulroney government have overflowed onto David Peterson.” However, federal Tories say that they expect Rae to provide equally strong support on constitutional reform. Added Senator Lowell Murray, Mulroney’s minister for federal-provincial relations: “The day an Ontario premier is not in that tradition, Canada is dead.”

Other analysts attributed the Liberal rout to a widespread distrust of all politicians among voters. Gregg, for one, said that, over the past 10 years, his surveys have found that the number of people who view politicians as honest and trustworthy has dropped by 30 percentage points. And the Liberal government’s own scandals may have contributed to that erosion. Peterson’s campaign was dogged by questions about the handling of the investigation of Liberal fund raiser Patricia Starr, who faces a total of 44 charges stemming from her alleged misuse of charitable funds for political purposes.

Other observers linked the public’s low regard for politicians to the elected leaders’ failure to resolve such divisive issues as the country’s constitutional deadlock and the continuing unrest among Indians. Indeed, in the wake of the June 23 failure of Meech Lake, Environics president Michael Adams noted that many voters appeared to resent having been subjected to the acrimonious, and ultimately sterile, debate. Canada’s politicians, Adams said, “should have just let sleeping dogs lie.” After Peterson’s mauling, there were indications that other political leaders across the country are reassessing any electoral intentions of their own.

In British Columbia, Premier William Vander Zalm, who had been considering an autumn election, appeared to be rethinking his strategy. The B.C. premier said that his government would examine the Ontario election results “very closely.” He added, “If it was an anti-government thing, I will have to think about that.”

Concern: Peterson was, at least in part, the victim of a public backlash against established politicians, but Adams, for one, said that Rae’s victory is a sign that the NDP’s traditional theme of social concern has found a newly receptive audience. He added that recent polling shows that many Canadians are alienated by the highly visible image of entrepreneurial materialism of the 1980s. “We have had a decade where business and entrepreneurship were king,” said Adams. “Now, Canadians want the emphasis on traditional Canadian values—strong ethical values.”

Boyd celebrating victory over Peterson: euphoria

As for apprehension among business leaders about the potential dangers of a socialist government, prominent NDPers quickly sent signals that they will proceed cautiously. For one thing, during the campaign Rae had harshly attacked the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. He added that his government would preserve Ontario’s farm-product marketing boards—which the Americans say they are determined to eliminate as part of the FTA. But after their victory, the New Democrats adopted a warier approach. In an interview with Maclean’s, Rae avoided dealing directly with the issue. And party executive Robert White, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union and one of the FTA’s harshest critics, would only say after the election that the new NDP government “will have to talk about [it].” Those who know Rae well, meanwhile, said that he is anything but doctrinaire in his social democratic beliefs. Declared Wise: “If people think they have a radical socialist on their hands, they are crazy. [Rae] is just not a radical type. He is very conservative in every way— the way he dresses, the way he thinks, the way he operates. He doesn’t change things overnight.” 

Task: Rae may be forced to quicken his cautious pace, however, by Peterson’s eagerness to shed his responsibilities as premier. Although by the weekend no date had been set for the transfer of power to the New Democrats, Peterson said last week that he would like it to take place quickly. Meanwhile, Rae will also have to choose a cabinet from a caucus of 54 men and 19 women that includes lawyers, teachers, £ nurses, autoworkers, a deaf±i rights activist—and a daunt| ing 60 rookie MPPs. Among 0 them is Marion Boyd, the 441 year-old administrator of a £ battered-women’s centre in " London, and political neophyte, who was immediately dubbed “Giant-killer” for her stunning victory over Peterson by an 8,000vote margin. But Boyd said Peterson made her task simple. “He didn’t attend a single allcandidates debate,” she said. “The people of London Centre killed him, not me.”

Peterson, meanwhile, retreated into seclusion on the family’s farm near London to consider his immediate future. Rae immediately asked him to go to Tokyo next week, as planned, to help promote Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics. A decision on the Olympic site is scheduled to be announced in the Japanese capital on Sept. 19. Another, longer-term role already being suggested for Peterson: leading a federal commission that Mulroney has promised will seek the views of Canadians on how the country should resolve its constitutional deadlock.

For Ontario’s 9.5 million residents, meanwhile, there remained uncertainty about just what their convulsive revolt had produced. And as the province took its first steps into the unknown territory of a social democratic government, there was also the implicit hope that Robert Rae would not prove to be just another politician from the same mould as those they had so firmly rejected.