Thirty years ago yesterday, David Peterson won the biggest majority government in Ontario history, and looked as if he could occupy the premier’s office for as long as he wanted.
In fact, you could make a reasonable argument that he was the most popular politician in the entire country.
Three years later, he lost an election and his own seat in one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in Canadian political history.
To understand how all this happened, we’ve got to go back to 1985. Frank Miller had taken over the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, which had enjoyed a remarkable streak of 42 consecutive years in power. But 1985 was one of those years when the tectonic plates of politics were shifting. The PC party looked old, tired, and increasingly out of touch with a province that was embracing feminism, increased urbanization, and environmentalism — issues that the new Liberal leader, David Peterson, was championing.
So when they counted the votes on May 2, 1985, it was Miller’s Tories who won the most seats, but it was Peterson’s Liberals who won the most votes. It was ultimately left to the NDP leader, Bob Rae, who held the balance of power in a minority parliament, to determine the victor. And after negotiating with both parties, Rae decided to end the Tory dynasty and back the Grits. The Liberals and New Democrats agreed on an “accord” of policy items which they would pass over the ensuing two years, and that’s exactly what happened.
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Ontario experienced some of the most activist governance it had ever seen — freedom of information legislation, a ban on doctors charging patients beyond what the fee schedule permitted (a practice known as “extra billing”), television in the legislature, the world’s first blue box recycling program, a big crackdown on the worst polluters, an unprecedented social housing construction boom, full public funding to the Catholic school system, and the construction of the SkyDome (as the Rogers Centre in Toronto was then called).
New Democrats would tell you that the Liberals governed reasonably well, because Rae’s caucus was playing watchdog, making sure the accord items were properly implemented.
Ontarians took a different view. They overwhelmingly gave the Liberals the credit for what they liked, and on September 10, 1987, David Peterson led his charges to 95 seats in a 130-seat legislature — the biggest majority government in Ontario history in terms of total seats won. No party has come close to winning so many seats since. Rae’s NDP was reduced to just 19 seats, down from 25 two years earlier. The PC Party under Larry Grossman lost 36 seats (including Grossman’s own), capturing only 16 in that party’s worst thrashing ever.
Peterson stood at the top of the mountain of Canadian politics. But what politics giveth, it also taketh away. The mood soon changed around Queen’s Park as expectations matched the Liberals’ seat count. The Grits were also no longer seen as a small, scrappy group of rookies, but rather as a majority government juggernaut that became arrogant and didn’t listen to its critics. With the opposition parties so apparently weak, the media and other special interest groups (particularly teachers’ unions and environmental groups) took it upon themselves to get nastier. At times, it got downright vicious. Opposition politicians ramped up the rhetoric that Ontarians were unaccustomed to hearing, such as MPPs calling their premier a “liar.” (Believe it or not, before this time, it was actually considered bad form to use that word in politics; many politicians seem to have gotten over that inhibition since).
In this era, there was no fixed-date election law in Ontario, so premiers essentially called elections whenever they thought it was most advantageous for their political prospects to strike. Usually, they waited four years before doing so. But Peterson was getting a ton of advice to call an early snap election after less than three years. Economists were forecasting a horrible downturn (they were surely right about that) and pundits warned Peterson he certainly didn’t want to call an election in 1991, in the middle of a deep recession.
Not only that, the opposition hardly looked formidable. The new Tory leader was a guy named Mike Harris, whose message of tax cuts and whose background as a former golf pro were both the butt of jokes among Toronto elites. And, of course, no one thought the NDP under Bob Rae had a chance of upsetting the Liberals. The NDP, after all, had never won an election.
So Peterson called that snap election for September 6, 1990, and it quickly became apparent that the public wasn’t amused. Voters wondered why someone with such a huge majority government was foisting an early, expensive, and (in their view) unnecessary election on them. The election call was seen as being in the Liberals’ interests, but not the public’s.
I remember talking to then-attorney general Ian Scott during the first week of the campaign. He assured me that while the voters might be cranky at the moment, they ultimately would hold their noses and re-elect the Liberals. After all, he added, “They’re not going to vote for Mike Harris, and what are they going to do — vote NDP?”
Uh, actually, yes. That’s exactly what the biggest chunk of the electorate did, giving Rae the most unexpected majority government in Ontario history.
The 1990 election capped off five of the most tumultuous years in Ontario political history, with all three of the major parties having a chance to sit on the government side of the house.
Whoever said Ontario politics was boring? It sure wasn’t three decades ago.