Fifty years ago today, a leadership convention for the ages

Broken voting machines. A blizzard. The PC convention at Maple Leaf Gardens was marred by complications — and, in the end, the overwhelming favourite only barely squeaked through
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 11, 2021
Bill Davis (right) with party president Alan Eagleson after winning the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party on February 12, 1971. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)

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Fifty years ago today, Progressive Conservative delegates gathered at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens to pick a new leader. The overwhelming favourite was the 41-year-old education minister from Brampton, who had the backing of most of the cabinet and caucus and seemed the obvious heir apparent.  

His name was Bill Davis.

I recently did a Zoom call with that former education minister just to recall one of the greatest (and most frightening) nights of his political life. No, the now 91-year-old Davis doesn’t necessarily know how to set up a Zoom call. But, fortunately, his son Ian does.

“Mr. Davis, do you have any recollections of that night?” I asked.

“Yes,” he responded, smiling and chuckling, “I look back on occasion to think of how lucky I was. But we won!”

That’s true. But what was supposed to be a sure thing proved to be anything but.

One of the first problems the more than 1,600 delegates faced were the newfangled voting machines being employed for the first time. The Tories thought they were being very modern by using 15 state-of-the-art machines. But 12 of them broke down (the guy in charge of them insisted that the delegates had used them improperly) rendering the first ballot results useless.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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There was palpable panic in the hall as organizers tried to figure out what to do next.  PC party president Alan Eagleson — yes, the same Eagleson who was a former MPP and future head of the NHL Players’ Association — ultimately decided to scrap the results and re-vote. Someone had to be sent out to find a printer that could instantly create thousands of ballots. It took time, and delegates got increasingly restless.

It shouldn’t have mattered, because Davis was supposed to be the unbeatable candidate. He’d been education minister for almost nine years at a time when that department was building the province in unprecedented fashion. He was the political force behind the creation of the college system and OISE, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. And he was also the guy who’d flipped the switch a few months earlier to put something called the Ontario Educational Communications Authority “on the air.” Yes, that was TVO.

The Department of Education then was like the Ministry of Health today — it spent more than forty cents of every dollar the province collected. The economy was so strong and the revenues so buoyant that Davis was constantly travelling all over Ontario opening new schools and making important contacts for the day when Premier John Robarts would retire.

Davis had been an MPP since 1959, when he was a 29-year-old backbencher in the PC government. The local newspaper in Brampton had published a picture of him then, alongside a former premier (Thomas P. Kennedy) and the current one (Leslie Frost). The caption said it all: “Past, present, and future.” Apparently, plenty of people had Brampton Billy pegged as a future premier.

Davis’s prime challenger was a downtown Toronto MPP, Allan Lawrence. Yes, you read that correctly. Half a century ago, Ontario’s capital city was nicknamed “Tory Toronto” because the party had such a stranglehold on much of the city, including the downtown.

Lawrence, who was the mines minister, wasn’t a particularly strong candidate. But he had a group of backroom people working for him who, unlike the voting machines, actually were on the cutting edge of things. Their campaign techniques, advertising, and convention strategy were first-rate. This group, which would eventually represent a big chunk of the formidable “Big Blue Machine” took an average candidate and turned him into a potential giant killer.

Two things they couldn’t control, however: the almost six-hour delay that the voting-machine debacle caused — and the weather. Both of which would be instrumental in the outcome. Davis topped the first ballot but with only a third of the votes — much less than his campaign team had hoped. Lawrence, with 26 per cent, was nipping at his heels. Their cabinet colleagues Darcy McKeough and Bob Welch followed with a touch over 16 per cent each. The delegates were deeply divided.

After the second ballot, Davis went up three points to 36 per cent, but Lawrence grew by four points to 30 per cent. McKeough could find only one point more support, bringing him to 17 per cent, while Welch flatlined and dropped off the ballot, declining to endorse any of the remaining three candidates.

On the third ballot, Lawrence made the Davis forces squirm bigly. Davis jumped five points to 41 per cent — still a long way from the victory circle. But Lawrence picked up almost seven-and-a-half points, giving him nearly 37.5 per cent.

Lawrence had the momentum. McKeough was forced off the ballot and then marched over to Davis’s section of the Gardens. Could he bring the lion’s share of his delegates with him and put Davis over the top?

While arm-twisting was happening on the convention floor, there was another drama unfolding. The clock was becoming Lawrence’s enemy. There was a blizzard outside the arena, and Lawrence (as mines minister) had a big chunk of his support from northern Ontario. With the weather taking a bad turn, many northern delegates feared they’d be snowed in if they didn’t grab a late bus or flight home to the north. Between the third and fourth ballots, more than 40 delegates left the Gardens. Lawrence needed those delegates.

I jokingly asked Davis on our Zoom call whether the blizzard had been part of his campaign strategy.

“Of course we planned it!” he responded, laughing.

At 2 o’clock in the morning, with the crowd exhausted from the delays, the results were announced. The Davis juggernaut barely made it over the finish line. Davis took 51.4 per cent of the votes, compared to Lawrence’s 48.6 per cent. It was a 44-vote difference on the fourth ballot: 812 to 768. Davis and his wife, Kathleen, enjoyed a victory kiss on the lips — quite a public departure for the always modest couple.

“I think that’s the only time I’ve ever seen you two kiss each other on the lips,” I said to Davis, who’d been joined on the Zoom call by his wife, with whom he’d celebrated his 58th wedding anniversary last month.

“It was probably the only time it happened!” Davis teased, as the couple burst out laughing.

“I bet you thought you were going to win by more than 44 votes,” I offered.

“Yes,” Davis simply said, and more laughter ensued.

Fifty years ago, Davis wasn’t nearly the political force he’d become. He was a bit shy, a bit introverted, not a great speaker, a bit too technocratic, and a long way from the comfortable stump speaker who could make a whole room laugh with his Johnny Carson-like schtick.

But he was smart enough to realize that he wanted the people who’d nearly taken Lawrence over the top — people such as Dalton Camp and Norman Atkins — to work for him. So Davis brought the two rivalrous teams together, unified the party, and, nine months later, won a majority government even bigger than the one he’d inherited from Robarts.

Lawrence didn’t stick around Queen’s Park for long. In 1972, he quit to run federally and won a seat in Northumberland–Durham. He spent nine months in the federal cabinet in 1979 during Joe Clark’s government but was passed over for cabinet when Brian Mulroney brought the Tories back to power in 1984. He retired as an MP in 1988 and died in 2008 at the age of 82.  

Davis, of course, had a very different fate. He led the Tories to four consecutive election wins, extending the PC dynasty to 42 straight years in power. He retired in 1985 as the second-longest-serving Ontario premier ever (his 14 years puts him behind only Oliver Mowat’s 24 years) and still lives in the same house on Main Street in Brampton as he did when he was premier.

I asked him how he was doing these days, and he said, “I’m feeling pretty good.” Ontario’s 18th premier was in a buoyant mood and sounded strong. I can report that his sense of humour is quite intact. As we talked about U.S politics, I asked him whether he’d ever met Donald Trump, given how much time both men have spent down south.

“Yes,” he responded.

“In Florida?” I ask.

“Well, I don’t think he ever came to Brampton,” Davis replied without missing a beat.

I often wonder how dramatically the course of Ontario and Canadian political history might have changed had those northern delegates not left to catch the last bus or flight out of Tory Toronto.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hugh Segal had supported Allan Lawrence. TVO.org regrets the error.

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