‘The Realities of March 19,’ 40 years later

It was a catchphrase for Bill Davis, who recaptured a majority government for the Tories — and rarely let the opposition forget it
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 19, 2021
Bill Davis waves to the crowd after leading the first ballot during the Ontario PC leadership convention in Toronto on February 12, 1971. (CP)

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He became premier of Ontario in 1971 at age 41, after almost nine years as one of the province’s most influential and successful education ministers. But his first term didn’t go well, and when he ran for re-election in 1975, the public knocked his big majority government down to a slim minority.

But his popularity increased. And so, less than two years later, in 1977, he orchestrated his own government’s defeat. He was so confident he could win back his majority. But the public had other ideas. They gave him a few more seats, but it was still just another minority government.

So Bill Davis did something different. He promised that his Progressive Conservatives would attempt to govern for a full term and co-operate more than ever with the opposition parties to give Ontarians good, collaborative government.

Davis was a master at that game. Because he was a moderate, pragmatic conservative, he could tack left or tack right as required to ensure the support of one of the opposition parties. In some respects, it was a golden age of democracy at Queen’s Park.

“Mr. Davis’s personality was conducive to making it work,” recalls former Liberal Jim Bradley, who served as an MPP for 41 years, the second-longest stint of all time. “From 1977 to 1981, the opposition was more appreciative and responsible, and the government was more responsive. The opposition had a lot of influence. We controlled committees and some of the agenda.”

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But, by 1981, Davis was truly hitting his stride politically. He stood up for Ontario motorists against his own national party, fighting the 18 cents a gallon gas-tax increase that Joe Clark’s government attempted to impose in its 1979 budget. (The budget was defeated, ushering in Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals for a last hurrah in 1980.)

There was the Quebec Referendum in 1980 and the ensuing constitutional negotiations in which Davis was front and centre.  

“He played a critical role in all of that, and was showing himself very skilled on the national stage in a way not seen before,” emailed former Liberal MPP Sean Conway, who served almost three decades in the legislature.

True to his word, Davis allowed the minority parliament to run for nearly four years. Then, in February 1981, he called an election for March 19.

In North Bay, the chair of the local school board had been recruited by cabinet minister Alan Pope to run for the PCs in Nipissing riding. Pope told the rookie, “We don’t think you can win. We just want a good candidate.” In fact, the riding had gone Liberal for 36 of the previous 47 years.

man in a suit
Dennis Timbrell was a cabinet minister in the Bill Davis and Frank Miller governments. (Courtesy of Dennis Timbrell)

But, at some point, the Tories must have thought they had a shot to win it, because they flew popular and well-known health minister Dennis Timbrell to North Bay to campaign for the candidate, whose name was Mike Harris.

“The primary reason I won was Bill Davis,” Harris told me earlier this week. “My election signs had Bill Davis’s name in big letters and Mike Harris’s name in small letters. It was all Team Davis.”

In the supposedly ultra-safe riding of Parry Sound, which was next to Harris’s, there was another rookie candidate who would also become a future premier.

How could a seat that had been Conservative for more than three straight decades be so competitive? The answer was, the Liberal candidate. Richard Thomas had campaigned for two years and was already a well-known broadcaster and actor with a distinctive long beard. He had a dynamic speaking style but was a controversial figure; even some in his own party disliked him.

Conversely, Ernie Eves became the PC candidate only a few weeks before election day; MPP Lorne Maeck had dropped out after his wife suffered a stroke.

And there was funny business. The NDP candidate’s name was Art Davis. “Several older people expressed their satisfaction to me at being able to vote for ‘Davis’ in our own riding,” Eves told me earlier this week. And dozens of votes for Eves were spoiled when some diehard Tories wrote on their ballots, “We cannot support Premier Davis’s stand on the Constitution.”

But there were some unusually positive moments for Eves as well. Thomas was from the town of Kearney, and when Eves campaigned there, the local reeve, Harold Shaw, told him: “Don’t worry young fella, we’re gonna beat the bearded bastard in his own bailiwick!” Former NHL player Gary Sabourin took Eves to every home in the community of Britt, which had only ever voted Liberal. But not this time.

“We won Britt,” Eves recalled. “All my advisers said it was a waste of time and not to go. I’m glad I didn’t listen.”

Eves ended up winning Parry Sound by six votes.

“The morning after the election,” he said, “the local MP Stan Darling called me, and when I picked up the phone, he said, ‘Good morning, Landslide Eves!’”

After his victory (and a judicial recount), one of the first people Eves met at Queen’s Park was former Liberal leader Robert Nixon.

“I wanna shake the hand of the man who beat that son of a bitch Richard Thomas!” Nixon told him.

Back in Toronto, Timbrell had won his first election in Don Mills in 1971, at the age of 25. A decade later, he was one of Davis’s most trusted and respected cabinet ministers; he’d been married to his wife, Janet, for just over a year and had an infant son, Ryan, to care for.

“Janet took Ryan to the office many days where he was ogled and snuggled by countless volunteers,” Timbrell emailed me.

During the campaign, Janet casually mentioned to her husband that she’d just been to see her family doctor, and guess what: “I’m pregnant.”

“A lot of my friends and supporters ribbed me for months,” Timbrell said. “‘When the hell did you have time for that in the middle of an exhaustive campaign?’ was the usual guffaw!”

Phil Gillies was a 26-year-old junior researcher in the premier’s office. He ran unsuccessfully in Brantford in 1977 but tried again in 1981. A week before election day, Davis came to Brantford to campaign with Gillies. As the bus approached the first rally, Davis adviser Hugh Segal took the candidate aside.

“Phil, I’m not supposed to tell you this,” Segal began, “but you’re going to win. The polling is done, and it’s not even going to be close. Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll be fine.” He was.

Less than two hours away in Simcoe County, George Taylor started the campaign in the

black and white photo of two men, one on crutches
George Taylor (left) with Bill Davis. (Courtesy of George Taylor)

local hospital in Barrie, thanks to a broken ankle. Taylor had had bad luck during the ’77 campaign as well, when a large German Shepherd had come flying from the back of a house he was canvassing.

“The thing bit me on the ass!” Taylor recalled in an email. “It got (mostly) my wallet.” Taylor retold the story many times, referring to the dog as “the NDP going after my wallet.” In 1981, he campaigned on crutches and won re-election. Less than a year later, Davis made him Ontario’s solicitor general.

In southwestern Ontario, NDP MPP Dave Cooke’s re-election bid in Windsor was off to a strong start — he’d gotten a 32-year-old whiz kid MP named Bob Rae to kick off his campaign. But NDP leader Mike Cassidy just didn’t have the royal jelly. The party lost 12 seats (luckily for Cooke, his wasn’t one of them), and less than a year later, Cassidy was out.

“After the election, the task for our caucus was to convince Cassidy he had to leave, even though he made it clear he wanted to stay,” Cooke emailed me.  

The caucus prevailed. Less than a year after that election, the NDP picked a new leader — that same whiz kid who would leave Ottawa and eight years later become Ontario’s 21st premier.

Election night could scarcely have been better for Davis and company. A nearly five-point swing in the total vote from the ’77 election put the Tories at 44.4 per cent, enough to pick up 12 more seats; they captured 70 out of 125.  After two misses — and six years of minority parliament — Davis had his majority back.

It wasn’t long before the premier and his ministers began answering questions in the legislature with the phrase, “given the realities of March 19 ...”

“Premier Davis used that phrase to remind opposition questioners that the minority days were over, and they’d better get used to dealing with the new majority government,” Gillies said in an email.

“The premier and the cabinet ministers felt it was payback for two minority governments,” Harris said. “They had to keep making concessions to the opposition parties for six years. Now they felt unshackled. It was fun times on the government side of the house, but not for the opposition. They lost a lot of power.”

group of men wearing suits
Bill Davis (left) with Phil Gillies. (Courtesy of Phil Gillies)

“When Mr. Davis would remind us of ‘the realities of March 19,’ it was particularly raw for the NDP,” said Cooke, who’d had hopes of returning the party at least to the official opposition status it had enjoyed in 1975. Instead, it was back to third place and just 21 seats.

That 1981 election was the first of six, both provincially and federally, for a scrappy Liberal from Hamilton named Sheila Copps, whe would go on to become Jean Chrétien’s deputy prime minister in 1993.

“I do remember the premier’s use of that phrase, the realities of March 19,” Copps wrote in an email. “But it was never spoken in a mean way. He was calm and merely observing the facts of the electoral map as it was configured. He didn’t appear to have a mean bone in his body. So different from how politics is viewed today.”

Bradley agrees. “Davis did it in a humorous way, not a combative one.”

Conway adds that one of the main reasons the Tories won was that, by 1981, Davis had come to stand head and shoulders above his two opponents: the Liberals’ Stuart Smith and the NDP’s Cassidy.

“One of, if not the most important factor in that election and its outcome was the departure of [former NDP leader] Stephen Lewis in 1978,” Conway said. “Many New Democrats simply stayed home, and in our very interesting three-party electoral system, that had the effect of favouring the PCs and giving them the seat totals they needed.”

“Neither opposition leader had grown in stature and credibility to come anywhere close to Bill Davis” is how Timbrell put it.

two seated men laughing
Ernie Eves (left) with Mike Harris. (Courtesy of Ernie Eves)

“The realities of March 19” lasted for four years. Davis retired from politics in October 1984 and was succeeded by cabinet minister Frank Miller. (Yes, there were three future premiers in that 1981 PC caucus — Miller, Harris, and Eves — and two more on the opposition benches in David Peterson and Rae.) Harris thinks that, ultimately, the constant drumbeat of hearing about “the realities of March 19” led the Tories to think they were invincible.

“We found it, as the opposition would, condescending and arrogant,” recalled Bradley, who a month ago celebrated his 76th birthday and today is the chair of Niagara Region. “No doubt, they were getting back at us.”

“In hindsight,” Harris said, “that kind of cockiness of having the majority government — those chickens came home to roost.”

In the ensuing May 2, 1985, election, the Tories faced their comeuppance. Miller won a bare four-seat minority-government victory over Peterson’s Liberals. But the jig was up. After 42 years, the Tory dynasty came to an end when Peterson and NDP leader Bob Rae voted non-confidence in the government. Peterson became Ontario’s 20th premier, and, suddenly, people at Queen’s Park started talking about “the realities of May 2nd.”

Payback is a you-know-what in politics, eh?

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