In Ontario politics, 'bland works'
Published: Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Updated: Thursday, July 5, 2012 15:07
It's difficult to understand the issues driving the current provincial election campaign without putting them in context. In an attempt to do just that, the Press tracked down David Whorley, of Brock's political science department, to answer the burning question: Just what do Ontarians want from our politicians?
Brock Press: What are the differences between the current Conservative governments and those pre-1985?
David Whorley: You can think back to the end of that 42-year dynasty and the figure of Bill Davis who once explained that "bland works." That is not a bad thumbnail sketch of his approach to governing. Say what you want about the Harris Conservatives, but they sure weren't bland. Of course, many would say that this was not necessarily a good thing. In addition to "bland Bill," you might also think of Leslie Frost - premier from 1949 to 1961 - who was sometimes called "The Great Tranquillizer," or John Robarts who described himself as "a management man." That is, Ontarians have typically tended to keep a safe distance from demagogues.
There is also an important difference looking back specifically to the Davis Tories, and that is the fact of minority government. While Davis won a majority government in 1971, he ran minority governments in 1975 and 1977, situations that pretty much necessitate consensus politics.
You can also think of a shift in the broader context of the federation. The old Davis Tories had been generally supportive of Ottawa. Here you might think of Pierre Trudeau's constitutional project and the support that was ultimately forthcoming from Davis. John Robarts was also an important actor on the federal stage. Here you might recall him hosting the "Confederation for Tomorrow Conference" in 1967, which looked at issues of provincial power and the place of Quebec in confederation.
This role of Ontario as the "honest broker" in the federation is not something that the post-1995 Conservatives have adopted. The province's relationship with the federal government has been much more combative. In fairness, this didn't start with the Mr. Harris; it can be seen during the Rae government in response to federal fiscal initiatives, not the least of which was the cap on the Canada Assistance Program - the so-called "cap on CAP."
Q: Do you see significant differences between the Conservative government under Harris and Eves?
DW: This has been an important question for the election.
At the beginning of Mr. Eves' premiership, he clearly tried to distance himself from Mr. Harris. Recall that the headlines following his first throne speech as premier declared that the Common Sense Revolution was dead. These were the days when Mr. Eves liked to speak of "the previous administration" when describing the Harris government. That is typically the way an incoming government speaks of an outgoing government it has defeated at the polls.
This was all rather strange considering that Mr. Eves, as finance minister, had been one of the more powerful cabinet ministers under Mr. Harris. Not only that, members of that "previous administration" were also prominent members in Mr. Eve's government.
As well, during the leadership contest, it is probably fair to say that Mr. Flaherty - not Mr. Eves - was the standard-bearer of the Common Sense Revolution. Mr. Eves seemed to be presenting himself in a more "Davisesque" mode, as a kinder, gentler conservative.
Yet since that time - and in particular during the campaign - we have seen Mr. Eves move back to the hard right, and take up a position in which Mr. Harris - or Mr. Flaherty - would be quite comfortable.
Some of the doubts that voters seem to have about Mr. Eves probably stem from this very question: "Who is the real Ernie Eves?" Is he more like Bill Davis or more like Mike Harris?
Q: Given how radical the changes the Common Sense Revolution brought to the province, was it possible for the Tory government to sustain the momentum that brought them to power in 1995? What would they need to do to build an empire like the big blue machine?
DW: This is probably a question of political culture as much as anything else. The long Tory run, ending rather abruptly with Frank Miller, was possible, in part, because the PCs tended not to stray too far from Ontarians' long-running values. Sid Noel, from the University of Western Ontario, points out that there seem to be a number key norms that Ontarians have historically found important. Among them, Ontarians have typically wanted economic prosperity, good management, and a balancing of interests.
Since 1995, Ontario has generally enjoyed good economic performance. Historically the Ontario PCs have been fortunate in governing during a time that included the long post-war boom; it is always advantageous to govern when times are good. But the good times never stick around permanently, and you see them coming to an end during the Davis era.
In terms of management, while the PCs have presented themselves - with some success - as good managers, there now seems to be some doubt about this. This doubt has emerged largely on Mr. Eves's watch. There are questions around the management of the province's water, its food supply - specifically meat inspections - and electricity, among other areas.
On the matter of balancing interests, the PCs are quite vulnerable. The approach to governing since 1995 has generally been divisive, and involved playing various interests off against each other.
Q: What issues do you feel are resonating with voters in the current election? How has this changed from the past two elections? Why?
DW: The main issues on minds of voters seem to be health, education and some sense that it is time for a change in government. On that last point, the desire for change has been quite solid throughout the campaign, running at about 60 per cent. This in itself seems an important change from 1999 when there wasn't this sort of sustained appetite for a change in government.