Can we finally cut David Peterson a break?

The former Ontario premier is constantly cited by pundits for his ill-advised early election call three decades ago. Enough is enough
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 12, 2021
Former Ontario premiers David Peterson (left) and Dalton McGuinty chat before Kathleen Wynne is sworn in as premier on February 11, 2013. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has his choice for Canada’s new governor general in place, the chattering classes can return to their favourite pastime: speculating on when the next federal election will be called.

Once upon a time, one of the most important political skills that prime ministers and premiers needed to have was a sense of timing — as in, when is the best time to call an election to ensure we get back in. 

That skill has been less important in recent years because many jurisdictions have passed fixed-election-date laws that mandate when elections will be held. Former premier Dalton McGuinty passed such a law in Ontario in 2005 and, as a result, we now know the next provincial election will be held on June 2, 2022. 

It was former prime minister Stephen Harper who gave us a fixed-election-date law federally in 2007. The idea was to prevent first ministers from using their position of power to call a snap election to their political advantage. It seemed a fairer way to conduct electoral business. 

However, in a minority parliament — which is what we have in Ottawa today — the fixed-date law has almost no teeth, because minority governments almost never last four years. Opposition parties will defeat a government if they sense vulnerability, and first ministers will pull the plug early if their polling numbers suggest a majority could be realized. 

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As the punditocracy considers whether Trudeau should exploit his current solid polling numbers and call an election less than two years into a four-year mandate, there’s always one example people cite as a cautionary tale for why early elections ought to be avoided at all costs. 

Travel with me, if you will, back to the summer of 1990. David Peterson was premier of Ontario, leading the biggest majority government in the province’s history. In September 1987, he’d taken a minority government — which had been elected two years earlier with only 48 out of 130 seats — and transformed it into a 95-seat juggernaut. It was no exaggeration to say Peterson was the most popular politician in the whole country.  

But as Peterson himself has said, “To govern is to choose, and to choose is to piss people off. The longer you’re in, the more barnacles the ship of state accumulates.”

The biggest barnacle of the day was the Meech Lake Accord, which secured Quebec’s signature on the Constitution but at a high cost. Much of English Canada (and, quite famously, the current PM’s father) opposed the deal, believing it conferred a special status for Quebec at the expense of the rest of the country. It might have been a historic political achievement, but it also caused considerable unrest in the land.  

There were also economic storm clouds brewing. Forecasters were united in their belief that an awful recession was on the horizon and likely to kick in by autumn. 

And there were political considerations. In May 1990, the Progressive Conservatives chose Mike Harris to be the party’s new leader. Harris’s conservatism seemed well to the right of where the Tories had successfully won elections for 42 straight years, from 1943 to 1985. While a veteran of nearly a decade at Queen’s Park, Harris wasn’t well-known — most thought he wouldn’t be much of a political threat as a neophyte leader. 

And then there was Bob Rae. The former national “Boy Wonder,” who’d barely turned 30 when he won his first seat in Parliament in 1978, was now in his eighth year as Ontario NDP leader. While technically he was now leader of the opposition, he’d actually lost six seats in the ’87 campaign, leaving many to wonder whether his skills, which had been so impressive in Ottawa, had abandoned him as he drove west down the 401. 

Then, just as now, there was election speculation galore. There was no obligation to have an election. In fact, Peterson could have governed for another two years before calling one (before fixed-election dates, the Constitution allowed for five-year terms). But Peterson surveyed the landscape. He saw the economic forecasts, angst over Meech Lake, and two untested opposition leaders. Yes, there was a public inquiry holding hearings into a political fundraising scandal with a woman — Patricia Starr — who seemed to love garnering headlines at the centre of it. But the malfeasance being alleged hardly seemed the stuff over which to overthrow governments. 

So Peterson decided that summer that the time was right to call an early election. Better, he thought, to seek a renewed mandate then, rather than calling one in the midst of what would be the worst recession since the Great Depression. Besides, he’d called a summer election in 1987, and that had worked out rather well. At the end of July, he called the election for September 6, 1990. 

To say that the public did not react well to the early election call is a massive understatement. There was fury in the land. Why the early call, people wondered. He’s already got almost all the seats: What bigger mandate does he need? 

I remember seeing Ian Scott, then the attorney general, on the hustings in the first week of the campaign. He acknowledged that people were furious, but the conventional wisdom was, it would pass. Voters might punish the Liberals a bit for that early election call; in the end, though, surely Ontarians would return them with a somewhat smaller caucus. 

“After all, people are not yet ready to vote the Conservatives back in,” Scott told me then. “And what are they going to do?” he asked incredulously. “Elect the NDP?”  

That had never happened before in Ontario history. (After the election, even Rae acknowledged that he’d figured the NDP would lose again.)

But further into the campaign, Scott knew he was in trouble when he knocked on the door of a loyal Liberal supporter.

“Hello, Mr. Scott, so nice to see you!” said the older woman. 

“Great to see you, too!” Scott replied. “Just wondering whether you realized we were in the midst of an election campaign in Ontario?” 

“Actually, I didn’t know that,” the woman said. “Who’s running for the NDP this time?”

“A very fine woman named Carolann Wright,” Scott said. 

“And for the Conservatives?” she asked. 

“Keith Norton,” Scott said. “He used to be a minister in Bill Davis’s government.” 

“Ahh, yes,” the woman said, recognizing the name. “And which one of them do you think I should vote for?” 

And she wasn’t kidding. 

As the campaign progressed, the Liberals were in free fall. At one point, in the Brant–Haldimand riding, treasurer Robert Nixon was told by his campaign team to stay off the hustings, because he was telling too many constituents to go procreate copiously — or words to that effect. And he’d only been the MPP of the riding for 28 straight years (his father had represented the area for 43). 

On September 6, Peterson’s Liberals lost an astonishing 59 seats; the premier’s own, in London Centre, was one of them. Apparently, even if Ian Scott couldn’t believe it, enough people were prepared to vote for the NDP, which won a majority government with 74 seats. Rae became premier. Peterson was out of politics less than three years after having led the Liberals to their best showing ever.  

More than three decades later, commentators are still invoking Peterson’s name — even now, as they consider Trudeau’s options — as the reason why you should never call an early election. 

It’s time to cut that out. 

When Peterson made his early election call, there were perfectly understandable reasons for doing so. I’ve enumerated them above. Monday-morning quarterbacks all weighed in after the fact saying what a dumb decision it was. But they weren’t saying that in early July.  There was virtual unanimity among Liberals and media types that it might be unfair to the opposition to call an election in July. But they added it would be a mistake not to take advantage of the Liberals’ 25-point lead over the NDP in the polls. Would it really be better, they asked, to call an election in the depths of the recession after a year or two of relentlessly negative news? The verdict was, let’s go now. 

For the next 31 years, the Peterson election defeat has somehow taken on mythological proportions. Any first minister considering an early election call has had the Ghost of 1990 over his shoulder. And, yet, the facts don’t bear this out at all. 

Jean Chrétien called a federal election in 2000, less than three and a half years into his 1997 majority mandate. He was returned with a bigger majority. More recently, Kathleen Wynne was forced into an early election call in 2014, when the NDP threatened (but didn’t get the chance) to vote no-confidence in her government, after less than a year and a half as Ontario premier. She went into the election with a minority government and emerged with a majority. John Horgan, in British Columbia, called an election less than three and a half years into his first mandate in 2017. He won a majority government last year. It was the same story in Manitoba, when Brian Pallister, despite having a majority government from the 2016 election, called an early election for 2019. He lost two seats but maintained his majority. 

In fact, former Ontario premier Ernie Eves will tell you his biggest political mistake was not calling an early election when he became premier in 2002. Eves’s early popularity numbers were buoyant, but, perhaps with Peterson’s ghost over his shoulder, he declined to call a snap election after succeeding Harris. When he finally did, for October 2003, it was after a SARS pandemic, a power failure that had crippled the northeastern states and provinces, and a case of mad cow disease. Eves lost to Dalton McGuinty. By not going early, he might have lost his best chance to keep the Tories in power. 

As Trudeau no doubt considers these examples and more, it’s finally time to say it: there is no Peterson curse on first ministers who call early elections. Peterson lost that 1990 election for perfectly valid reasons that were unique to that time in our history. They have proved not to be a template for future elections, and it’s frankly unfair to Peterson, who, for decades, has had to carry the burden of that election defeat and hear his name invoked whenever an early election call is made. 

If Trudeau calls an early election, he will sink or swim for reasons that are unique to this moment in our country’s history. It will have nothing to do with events of 31 years ago. 

It’s enough already. There is no Peterson Ghost of Early Election Calls Lost. The sooner we stop invoking one, the better. 

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