Why I’m pining for the old days of politics

A birthday bash for one of Ontario’s most legendary premiers reminded me that politics wasn’t always so awful. Can we ever return to civility?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 09, 2019
Bill Davis at Queen's Park
Then-minister of education Bill Davis in the legislature at Queen’s Park on April 5, 1966. (John McNeil/Globe and Mail/CP)

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I have to plead guilty here to old fogeyism.

Seeing so many people from different parties come together last month to celebrate the 90th birthday of one of Ontario’s longest-serving premiers reminded me that politics wasn’t always the blood sport it is today.

Bill Davis is a fascinating character to me, in part because, in a business where winning is rather important, he never lost. And I mean never. From his first election in 1959, to his bid for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1971, to the general elections of ’71, ’75, ’77, and ’81, Davis never lost.

Although he’s been out of public life for almost 35 years, he remains the last Ontario premier who was never defeated at the polls or forced into retirement because defeat was imminent — fates that have befallen all of his successors. In fact, many have suggested that Davis left a potential fifth victory on the floor when he decided to retire from public life at 54.

I don’t think I’m looking through the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia here: I’ve heard other observers from across the political spectrum bemoan the same things. Namely, that politics everywhere has become more vicious, more extreme, and less about finding common ground.

That was one of the most essential ingredients in Davis’s special political sauce. He felt little need to vanquish or destroy opponents; rather, he tacked right or left, depending on the issue, to secure as big a coalition of support as possible. That is surely a reason why so few of the achievements of the Davis years (1971 to 1985) have been overturned by subsequent governments.

It’s also why people such as Hugh Segal, a one-time Davis chief of staff, spoke wistfully at the former premier’s recent birthday party. “If there was ever a province that desperately needed a Progressive Conservative government as soon as possible, it is Ontario,” Segal told the crowd. Then he added: “And my proposed slogan would be ‘Choose Brampton; Etobicoke has had its chance!’” — referring to Davis’s and Premier Doug Ford’s hometowns.

If there’s still a politician unabashedly trying to emulate Davis’s measured approach, it’s Toronto’s current mayor, John Tory, who, like Segal, was also one of the former premier’s chiefs of staff back in the day. At Davis’s birthday celebration, Tory referred to the former premier as “the only man I’ve ever known who could be described as a second father to me.”

Despite now being 65 years old and having known Davis for nearly half a century, Tory confessed that there’s something he’s never called his old boss and mentor: Bill.

“I respect him so much and love him so much I can only call him Premier,” Tory explained. “And I’ve tried to model myself in public life after him.”

When Davis got his first post-politics job at what is now the law firm Torys LLP, he insisted that everyone call him Bill — even the twentysomething rookies. And they all did.

But Tory? Never.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course Davis’s former acolytes talk of him reverentially. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. But would it surprise you to hear two of Davis’s former political opponents refer to him in similar tones?

“If Bill Davis comes back to run for a Progressive Conservative government, I will serve under him,” said former NDP premier Bob Rae at Davis’s birthday bash. Then, with his inimitable timing, Rae added: “I have only one condition: I want to be his minister of finance.”

Continuing on and fighting back tears, he said, “He’s a role model, a mentor, a friend. He’s a force of love and steadiness.”

Can you imagine Thomas Mulcair talking about Stephen Harper this way? Or Andrea Horwath about Doug Ford? Of course not. There was something different about how Davis and his generation governed. There just was.

Another NDP opposition leader, Stephen Lewis, who was an MPP from 1963 to 1978, sent a letter to be read to the gathering. “My years in the Ontario legislature were the best years of my life because you were the premier of the day,” he wrote. “It goes without saying that you were always wrong — but you left a legacy of integrity and civility.”

Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne also showed up at Davis’s party, which was held at Toronto’s Albany Club, the quintessential Tory hangout, and even she received a warm round of applause when her presence was noted by the emcee, reflecting the spirit of generosity in the room.

Where has that spirit gone? How do we get past the era of Trump’s Twitter tantrums and Canadian party leaders attacking teenagers on social media?

Would more Canadians tune into politics if they didn’t feel like they needed to take a shower every time they watched the party leaders speak? Is it even possible to improve the tone of public life in an age of slash-and-burn politics, where our most appalling instincts are exhibited on (and amplified by) social media? Or is this just a ridiculous pipe dream?

Maybe I’m a dinosaur. Still, I can’t help but think that there are others out there like me, who believe that we can have strong, forceful debates among people with contrasting political views, but without all the hate.

The writs are about to be drawn up for the 43rd Canadian general election. Maybe someone will be interested in, as Abraham Lincoln said in his 1861 inaugural address, appealing to “the better angels” in us all.

I’m not holding my breath. But I know it can be done. I’ve seen it. And so have many others.

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