At the time this article was
written Jim Henderson was the member for Etobicoke in the Ontario Legislative
The truism that love and hate are
close together in the human mind emerges clearly from the results of Ontario's
September 1990 general election. The leaders we idealize quickly become objects
of scorn and even hatred. Conversely politicians sometimes survive intense
denigration to emerge victorious in a subsequent election. Rarely has any
politician or any government moved from idolatry to scorn as quickly as David
Peterson and Ontario's Liberal government in the election of September 1990.
The "teflon premier" whose popularity was at 50 to 60 percent
throughout most of his 5-year term became the politician everyone loved to hate
during two largely uneventful summer months of 1990.
Political scientists, journalists,
and citizens will have their favourite explanations for this remarkable demise
of a seemingly invincible team. But simple explanations are unlikely to
suffice. To borrow a term from `depth psychology', the fall was
`multi-determined'. There were manifest, personal, and latent factors.
The manifest factors were taxes,
the Patti Starr affair, and the timing of the election. There had been hefty
rises in Ontario property taxes in the last 2 years. Queen's Park bumped the
provincial sales tax to a record 8 percent (then promised to reduce it back to
7 percent during the campaign). These were important irritants to an
electorate. But Ontario had the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada for
middle income households with children, the second lowest personal income tax
in Canada for seniors, and the third lowest for low income households. The
elimination of OHIP premiums returned a billion dollars to individuals and
families, and almost 2/3 of a million tax filers in Ontario saw their Ontario
income tax reduced through the Ontario tax reduction program. Moreover Queen's
Park returned about a billion every year to seniors through measures like the
Seniors' Tax Grant and Property Tax Grant.
Ontario municipalities successfully
blamed Queen's Park for property tax increases, citing insufficient education
grants as the reason for municipal hikes. Queen's Park was putting $5.5 billion
a year into education (including the Teachers Superannuation Plan), and was
funding 57 percent of approved education costs. Perhaps Queen's Park should
have worked harder to counter the municipal assertions of excessive provincial
The so-called Patti Starr affair
was a factor also, although interest in that has predictably waned with the
demise of the Peterson Government. The Starr affair had enormous symbolic
importance. I always suspected that little would come to light that was not
already endemic to politics, but that may be the heart of the issue. People are
fed up with the shallowness and phoniness of public process and the
government's relationship with Patti Starr became the vehicle of that distaste.
The 1990 election call was
unpopular. Premier Peterson said he called it to forestall an election in 1991
that would be fought on the divisive issue of Quebec nationalism and the thorny
issue of an impending economic downturn. Electors did not accept that
explanation. They saw the election as political opportunism and punished
Peterson and his government for doing it.
The second set of reasons may be
inherent in the leadership style and philosophy of David Peterson. The Premier
once told me that a government is like a football team. He meant the
quarterback calls the plays and each player plays his position. I am not fond
of that analogy because it does not seem to me to allow for the individual
creativity, freedom, and growth that I think is important in the longer term if
an organization is to be dynamic, creative, and self-sustaining. A tightly
knit, leader-centered group that tolerates little deviation from a closely
woven agenda thrives and wins in the short term but is not always a formula for
long term success.
Mr. Peterson's political skills
were well-tuned for notable short-term success. He had a tough, combative
modus-operandi hidden beneath a genial and easy-going manner that made him a
difficult target for political opponents. His political style would be aptly
suited to a crisis -- to decisive, far-reaching action in a time of immediate
stress and challenge. After months of drift, Ontario may have needed that in
1985, but in 1990 the scenario had changed. David Peterson, aptly suited to
crisis leadership, somehow seemed to lack the depth and wisdom necessary for
sensitive and understanding management in a time when there were few dragons to
be slain and few maidens to be rescued. David Peterson had the toughness, but
may have seemed to lack the depth and range to go the distance in long-term
Everything I have said so far might
account for the loss of a few seats - at most a demotion of the government to
minority status, but not massive repudiation.. More pervasive discontent must
have been at work. Maybe it is the physician in me that seeks to probe beneath
the surface and attend to what is underlying.
The Peterson Government was the
first to go to the polls after the collapse of the Meech Lake Constitutional
talks; the first to go to the polls in the imminent prospect of the 7 percent
federal sales tax, and the first government to seek a new mandate since the
adverse affects of the free trade deal began to be felt in Ontario. It was also
the first government to go to the polls in the wake of major national unrest
over Canada's troubled relationship with its native peoples.
I suspect these factors, together
with the general sense of irritation with a political process that too much
attends to appearances, played an important part in the fall of the Peterson
Government. Of course, shallowness and appearances are the stuff of politics,
but there is good reason to look carefully at our political institutions.
Unlike our American cousins who canvassed the global options very carefully
before constructing their constitution, Canada simply inherited the British
parliamentary system. When some feisty and outspoken politicians in early
Canadian legislatures proved too outspoken for their respective leaders' wishes,
we stiffened the requirements of party solidarity and demanded that our
legislators mindlessly adhere to the policies and positions crafted by their
leaders and party whips.
In my opinion, the vast majority of
Canadians oppose the convention of party discipline which needs to be relaxed
to allow elected members to more accurately represent the views of their
constituents. Forced to choose between personal conscience, duty to
constituents, and allegiance to party platform, Canadian legislators
overwhelmingly choose party.
It does not need to be that way.
Experience has shown that governments do not fall and legislatures do not
become unworkable when elected members balance their responsibilities to
parties and party whips with their responsibilities to constituents and to
personal consciences. Relaxation of party discipline, revamping of the
legislative committee system, and democratization of the procedures and rules
of parliamentary process are much overdue if Canadian assemblies are to
recapture the confidence and trust of their electors.
It seems regrettable to me, in at
least two ways, that our electoral system requires that local candidates be
punished if a leader's performance is to be rejected. First, voters should be
free to express their preferences at the local level as well as at the
provincial or national level without having to compromise one preference for
the other. American electors, for example, elect their representative in the
Senate or the House of Representatives and vote separately for the President or
Governor. That seems only reasonable. True, it makes life tough for a head of
government of one political persuasion who faces a Senate or Congress of
another, but history shows that government does not become unworkable when that
happens. Dedicated and tough-minded legislators committed to their mandates
make it work.
Second, it seems a loss to the
people of Ontario and an unnecessary waste that some hard-working,
compassionate, and excellent colleagues (and their trained and experienced staffs)
were rejected on September 6 for reasons that had little to do with either
their good personal records or fine performances in the Legislature. They did
not deserve it, nor did voters mean to reject their record of service, though
our political system requires that they do so if they wish to send a firm
message to the leader.
Speaking personally I had not been
close to David Peterson, although I respected his leadership and felt he was a
good premier. I differed on certain issues and perhaps on some points of
political philosophy as well. I expressed major doubts about the wisdom of the
Meech Lake Accord, feeling it would balkanize our nation and fly in the face of
our need for a strong central government. Many voters seemed to share my view,
and knew as well of my reputation as an independently-minded MPP. Perhaps all
that played a part in my survival on September 6, and I am grateful to my
constituents for their loyalty.
I have introduced a bill to set in
motion a re-examination of the relationship between leaders and candidates in
our parliamentary systems. Why should voters not be able to cast a separate
ballot to elect the leader of our province or nation, while still retaining
their prerogative to select the personal representative of their choice to
serve in the elected assembly?
History may judge the government of
David Peterson more kindly than did the events of September 6. The budget was
balanced for the first time in 20 years, and the debt was paid down for the
first time in close to half a century. And no one has ruled out the possible
return of David Peterson to the helm of the Ontario Liberal Party at its
forthcoming leadership convention likely to occur in 1992.
Meanwhile there is work to do and
there are important lessons to be learned from the Ontario Liberal collapse of
1990. Our legislative processes need reform. The previous government did not
understand that need, or if they did they did not give it much priority. I hope
this current Ontario Legislature can do a little better.