Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay – Sunday August 8, 2021
Bill Davis, Former Premier of Ontario Dies (1929-2021)
William Greville Davis (born July 30, 1929) was the 18th Premier of Ontario, Canada, from 1971 to 1985. Davis was first elected as the MPP for Peel in the 1959 provincial election where he was a backbencher in Leslie Frost’s government. Under John Robarts, he was a cabinet minister overseeing the education portfolio. He succeeded Robarts as Premier of Ontario and held the position until resigning in 1985.
Shortly after taking office as premier, Davis announced that his government would not permit continuing construction of the rest of the Spadina Expressway into downtown Toronto (an initiative that had been unpopular with many of the area’s residents). The “Davis ditch”, the section of Allen Road south of Lawrence Avenue was nicknamed in his honour. He also rejected a proposal to grant full funding to Ontario’s Catholic high schools, which some regarded as an appeal to the Progressive Conservative Party’s rural Protestant base. Davis’s team ran a professional campaign in the 1971 provincial election, and was rewarded with an increased majority government.
Davis’s first full term as premier was by most accounts his least successful, with public confidence in his government weakened by a series of scandals. There were allegations that the Fidinam company had received special consideration for a Toronto development program in return for donations to the Progressive Conservative Party. In 1973, it was revealed that Davis’ friend Gerhard Moog had received a valuable untendered contract for the construction of Ontario Hydro’s new head office and related projects. Attorney General Dalton Bales, Solicitor General John Yaremko and Treasurer McKeough were all accused of conflicts-of-interest relating to government approval for developments on properties they owned. The government was cleared of impropriety in all cases, but its popular support nonetheless declined. The Conservatives lost four key by-elections in 1973 and 1974.
On the policy front, the Davis administration introduced regional governments for Durham, Hamilton-Wentworth, Haldimand-Norfolk, and Waterloo but shelved further plans in response to popular protests. The government was also forced to cancel a planned 7% energy tax in 1973 following protests from the Progressive Conservative backbench. In the buildup to the 1975 provincial election, Davis imposed a ninety-day freeze on energy prices, temporarily reduced the provincial sales tax from 7% to 5%, and announced rent controls for the province.
The 1975 campaign was far more bitter than that of 1971, with Davis and Liberal leader Robert Nixon repeatedly hurling personal insults at one another. Polls taken shortly before the election had the Liberals in the lead. The Progressive Conservatives won only 51 seats out of 125, but were able to remain in power with a minority government. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 38 seats under the leadership of Stephen Lewis, while Nixon’s Liberals finished third with 36. Soon after the election, Davis hired Hugh Segal as his legislative secretary.
Davis appointed right-wingers Frank Miller and James Taylor to key cabinet portfolios after the election, but withdrew from a proposed austerity program following a negative public response. In 1977, he introduced a policy statement written by Segal which became known as the “Bramalea Charter”, promising extensive new housing construction for the next decade. Davis called a snap election in 1977, but was again returned with only a minority. The Progressive Conservatives increased their standing to 58 seats, against 34 for the Liberals and 33 for the NDP.
The Conservatives remained the dominant party after the 1975 and 1977 elections due to the inability of either the New Democrats and the Liberals to become the clear alternative. The Conservatives were able to stay in power due to the competition between both opposition parties. As there was no serious consideration of a Liberal-NDP alliance after both campaigns, Davis was able to avoid defeat in the legislature by appealing to other parties for support on particular initiatives. His government often moved to the left of the rural-based Liberals on policy issues. The opposition parties had also undergone leadership changes; Nixon and Lewis, who had posed a strong challenge to Davis, resigned after the 1975 and 1977 elections, respectively. Nixon’s successor Stuart Lyon Smith proved unable to increase Liberal support, while new NDP leader Michael Cassidy lacked the support of the party establishment and could not measure up to Lewis’s charismatic and dynamic figure.
This period of the Davis government was one of expansion for the province’s public health and education systems, and Davis held a particular interest in ensuring that the province’s community colleges remained productive. The government also expanded the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code, and expanded bilingual services without introducing official bilingualism to the province.
The Progressive Conservatives were returned with a majority government in the 1981 provincial election, mostly at the expense of the NDP. Soon after the election, Davis announced that John Tory (who would become leader of the PCs 23 years later) had been hired to succeed Hugh Segal as his principal secretary. He also announced that Ontario would purchase a 25% share in the energy corporation Suncor, despite opposition from within his own caucus.
In 1983 Davis considered moving to federal politics by running to lead the federal Progressive Conservatives when Joe Clark only received lukewarm support during a leadership review. Davis decided not to do so when he realized that he would not receive endorsements from western Canada because of his support for the Constitution patriation and the National Energy Program. His candidacy had been strongly opposed by Peter Lougheed, the Premier of Alberta.
He retired a few months before the 1985 election, with him and his government still well ahead in polls against David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP. One of his last major acts as premier was to reverse his 1971 decision against the full funding of Catholic schools, and announce that such funding would be provided to the end of Grade Thirteen. Although the policy was supported by all parties in the legislature, it was unpopular with some in the Conservatives’ traditional rural Protestant base, and many would stay home in the upcoming election because of this issue. (Source: Wikipedia)