Some advice for Justin Trudeau, inspired by Bill Davis

If the prime minister learns from the former premier’s example, he could find a road back to majority government
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 21, 2021
Left: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Graham Hughes/CP) Right: Former Ontario premier Bill Davis. (Rod MacIvor/CP)

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In 1977, a month shy of his sixth birthday, Justin Trudeau found himself at the Grey Cup game in Montreal, sitting between his father, the prime minister, and Bill Davis, the premier of Ontario, who was Pierre Trudeau’s guest. 

“Bill,” the prime minister said, “I know nothing about this game of football. Would you mind explaining it to my son Justin?”

Davis, who’d been a star high-school quarterback and played some varsity football for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues then gave the future prime minister Trudeau a thorough briefing. 

Davis died last month at age 92, but I keep wondering — if he were still around, what kind of advice would he give the younger Trudeau today?

I think I know. 

More than four decades ago, Ontario’s 18th premier found himself in almost exactly the same circumstances Canada’s 23rd prime minister finds himself in today. Davis came in on a wave of youthful renewal in 1971, winning a majority government in his first election as leader, at the tender age of 41. Trudeau was 43 when he became prime minister in 2015 and also won a majority the first time out of the gate. 

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The first term in office didn’t go particularly well for either. When they ran for re-election, each was knocked down a peg, to minority-government status — Davis in 1975, and Trudeau in 2019.

But then the polls got somewhat more buoyant, prompting both men to call early, unnecessary snap elections in hopes of exploiting their apparent popularity. And, again, for both men, it didn’t work out. Davis came back in 1977 with a few more seats but still with a minority government. Same story for Trudeau last night. 

It’s what happened next in 1977 that could be immensely instructive to Trudeau as he plots his next moves: Davis told the people of Ontario, okay, I’ve heard you. No more snap elections. No more funny business. I will put the public’s agenda ahead of my partisan agenda. I will work with the other parties at Queen’s Park to find items we can agree on and make progress on those issues. And, while the opposition can always vote no-confidence in the government, I will not orchestrate an early election call. We will serve a full four-year term. 

What happened? Merely what numerous observers have described to me as a golden age of democracy in provincial politics. Davis governed collegially. He shared power. He negotiated workable agreements on plenty of issues with the opposition leaders. When Ontario Hydro (the former Crown corporation responsible for both generating and transmitting electricity) wanted a huge rate increase, Energy Minister Dennis Timbrell struck an all-party committee to study the issue and hear from experts and the public. What resulted was a unanimous, all-party agreement on how much rates needed to rise. The issue didn’t become wildly partisan. The opposition Liberals and New Democrats couldn’t recklessly attack the government, because they’d been partially responsible for finding a solution. And the Progressive Conservative government couldn’t overly indulge in stupid, partisan attacks and marginalize its opponents, because it needed to do business with them on this and other issues. 

It worked — particularly for Davis, who, true to his word, waited until 1981 to renew his mandate. The result: a fourth straight victory for the PCs and a return to its majority-government status. 

Over the years, Davis and Trudeau stayed in touch. They were fond of each other and would tease each other, using Davis’s favourite expression: “Justin/Bill is a wonderful person, even if he is philosophically misguided.” That was always Davis’s way of saying, if only Justin were a Tory. 

I think if Davis were still alive, he’d tell the current prime minister: “A lot of people are underestimating you right now. They think you’re damaged because you called this snap election, and it didn’t work out as you’d hoped. Well, I’ve been there. My advice, prime minister, is to reach out. Be more collegial and less ideological and adversarial. Establish a good working relationship with your opponents. I worked so well with the leader of the NDP in my day that I eventually recommended he be appointed our United Nations ambassador — yes, Stephen Lewis, whose father, David, worked so well with your father in a minority parliament.  Keep your head down, provide good governance, re-establish some trust. And then, in four years’ time, you can go back to the electorate, and they will reward you for doing the job well.” 

Every era is different. Every election is different. Every leader is different. But there are currents to politics. And I have no doubt that Bill Davis would want Justin Trudeau to know that there are currents that could take him back to majority territory, if he learns how to play his cards right. 

After the 1977 Ontario election, many Tories wondered whether Davis was too damaged to return the party to majority status. Four years later, he answered that question in resounding fashion. Many Liberals are asking the same questions about Trudeau today. 

What path will he take to get them that answer? 

No one yet knows. But a nonagenarian from Brampton surely could have pointed the way. 

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