How the Big Blue Machine dominated Ontario politics for more than four decades

By Steve Paikin - Published on August 4, 2016
John Robarts, Ross MacDonald and Bill Davis
Former Ontario premier John Robarts (left) and Lieutenant-Governor Ross Macdonald (centre) with new premier Bill Davis in 1971. (Dennis Robinson/Globe and Mail)

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It was on this date 73 years ago that one of the most successful political dynasties in the history of the western world made its debut. And it happened right here in the province of Ontario.

For much of the 1930s and early 1940s, the Liberals were in power in Ontario, as they had been for so many years since Confederation in 1867. But  the Liberal powerhouse was falling apart. Premier Mitchell Hepburn, who had led the party to huge victories in 1934 and 1937, was demonstrating increasingly odd behaviour. The story goes that one day in October 1942 he walked down the hall at Queen's Park from the premier's office to the office of his attorney general, Gordon Conant, and essentially said, “I've had enough. You take over.”

Conant temporarily became the unhappy 12th premier of Ontario, until a leadership convention could be held. What emerged from that vote was Ontario's third premier in seven months, Harry C. Nixon. It was May 1943.

Because it was war time, Ontario actually hadn't had an election in six years, well beyond the traditional five-year term and the custom of going to the polls every four years. Hepburn's view was Ontario ought not to be having elections and risking political upheaval in the midst of her boys shipping overseas to fight the Nazis.  Nixon thought that inappropriate and thus called an election for Aug. 4, 1943. It would turn out to be one of the most consequential and unusual elections in Ontario history.

“I was 15 years old and held a legal driving permit and so took an active part in getting out the vote  ̶  some fun!” writes Harry Nixon's son Robert, who turned 88 a few weeks ago, and today recalled that '43 campaign in his daily blog post he still distributes to interested friends.

Harry Nixon's Liberals came third. The election was won by George Drew's Progressive Conservatives, but just barely. The Tories took 38 seats, but the new and upstart Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the precursor to the NDP) held the PCs to a minority, with 34 seats of its own. The Liberals lost 48 seats and ended up with 16, even though they took only a half a percentage point fewer votes than the CCF.

That Aug. 4 election begat 42 consecutive years of Progressive Conservative dynasty. In 1948, Drew left Ontario politics to become the leader of the federal PC Party. But each time the Tory leadership changed, party members made the smart choice, replacing Drew with Leslie Frost, then John Robarts, and then Bill Davis. All three were shrewd politicians and capable administrators who kept the party popular with voters.

I was covering Queen's Park during Davis's term, and the joke was he was in competition with Albanian Communist dictator Enver Hoxha to see whose dynasty would last longer. Of course, Hoxha didn't have to worry about little things like elections. Davis won four of those.

In 1985, Davis retired, but rather than going for another younger, centrist leader as Tories always had, delegates chose the staunchly right-wing Frank Miller to be their new party chief. Miller was two years older than Davis and decidedly outside the traditional mainstream of Ontario moderate politics. Even though Miller won four more seats than the second place Liberals  ̶  echoing the results of that 1943 election when the Tories won four more seats than the CCF  ̶  Miller couldn't hold the confidence of the legislature, and the two opposition parties (under David Peterson and Bob Rae) combined forces to throw the Tories out. The 42-year-old dynasty had ended.

Ontario politics has often been a family business. Harry Nixon served in the legislature until his death in 1961. He remains the longest-serving MPP ever, from 1919 to 1961. His aforementioned son Robert took over his seat in Brant County, led the Ontario Liberals on four occasions, and in a nice bit of political symmetry, became treasurer (minister of finance) in Ontario in 1985  ̶  the first Liberal treasurer since his father's government in 1943.

And Frank Miller's son, Norm, put a Miller from Muskoka back in the legislature in 2001, his father having served as an MPP until 1987.

In the end, the Alberta Tory dynasty that started in 1971 and ended in 2015 outlasted the Ontario PCs by a couple of years. But their electoral prospects look decidedly dicier right now. They have only nine seats and are in third place in the Alberta legislature, and in the midst of a potentially existential fight with the Wildrose Party for that province's centre-right vote.

Conversely, the Ontario Tories are in first place in the polls, are the official Opposition at Queen's Park, and after four straight election losses, seem to have some bounce back in their step.

Timing is everything in politics and if you're relatively young, the Liberals are your natural governing party in Ontario. But those of us in the older generations remember a time when the Ontario Tories won 12 elections in a row and formed one of the most impressive and impenetrable dynasties in world political history.

And it all began on this date, 73 years ago. 

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