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William Davis: a Liberal in Conservative clothing

Written by Norris McDonald

William Davis, premier of Ontario from 1971 till 1985, called himself a Conservative. He was anything but.

As was proved by Pierre Trudeau and his two pals, Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier, who were philosophical socialists who saw no potential for power with the NDP and set out to take over the Liberal Party of Canada, Davis was a lifelong Tory for the simple reason that the only way to get and hold power in Ontario at the time was to be a Conservative. The Tories were the government of Ontario for 42 consecutive years, from 1943 to 1985, meaning (except for that ’85 election) you were wasting your time running for office as a Liberal or NPPer if you had political ambitions.

The greatest Tory Ontario premier last century was John Robarts. He and Chatham-area MPP Darcy McKeough, among others, worked 18-hour days, 10 or so at the Ontario legislature and the other eight in a suite of rooms they rented in the Westbury Hotel on Yonge St., around the corner from the old Maple Leaf Gardens. They were nose-to-the-grindstone guys at Queen’s Park and heavy drinkers at the Westbury, where it’s alleged that all sorts of other extracurricular activities also took place. Although Davis was a straight shooter and family man, he must have been around the Westbury enough times to catch Robarts’s eye as a potential successor.

He became a member of the Robarts cabinet in 1962, after being elected in 1959. He was named education minister and did much during his tenure. He founded two universities and started the TVO television station. He also chopped the number of school boards in the province from 3,676 to 192 (no doubt giving Mike Harris his idea for closing hospitals and Doug Ford for cutting back on the number of Toronto city councillors).

Davis succeeded Robarts in 1971 and that is when he put his blue suit in the closet and painted the caucus room red. He showed his true colours in three ways:

First, instead of holding a plebiscite or putting the question on the ’71 election ballot, he listened to a small group identifying themselves as residents of downtown Toronto – their so-called leader was the original NIMBYer Jane Jacobs, who did the same thing in New York before coming and doing it in Toronto – and arbitrarily killed the building of the Spadina Expressway. Anybody who tries to get around midtown-west Toronto, particularly on a Saturday, can tell you how disastrous that particular decision was. What made it worse was that public-transit construction in Toronto ground to a halt at the same time. His very Liberal decision to make the anti-car crowd in downtown Toronto happy put transit in Toronto on the back burner for 40 years or so.

Then came rent control, since modified. Rent pays for improvements to buildings as they age. No increase means landlords can’t afford to keep up. Many people invest in subdivision or condominium developments and the interest they earn pays their pensions. No Conservative premier would ever do what Davis did.

Because he’d decided to retire, and couldn’t be hurt personally politically, Davis went back to something that he’d been forced to retreat from years earlier when he was education minister: public funding of the Roman Catholic separate school system. In 1971, he’d turned down such a proposal because of public protests but on his way out the door in 1984, he reversed that and opened up a can of worms that continues to this day.  Again, no Conservative premier would have done that.

Davis, who was a favourite of the Toronto Star, which should tell you something, and partied with former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynn (see photo, above) died last August and there was a Memorial Service in his honour this past week at which everybody said all the right things.  He was really a great guy, blah blah blah.

Martin Regg Cohn, a Star columnist who is well worth reading (unlike some they have on the roster these days), dropped a bombshell during his essay on the Service. Frank Miller succeeded Davis as premier and then won the next election but was ganged-up on by Bob Rae’s NDP and David Peterson’s Liberals. Wrote Cohn:

“Bob Rae, once the NDP’s opposition leader, recalled suddenly becoming Ontario’s 21st premier and getting unexpected phone calls from Davis. His erstwhile adversary emerged as a loyal friend who reached out frequently with strategic advice.”


So not only was Bill Davis a Liberal in Conservative clothing, he was an enemy of the Tory party. He was also an enemy of the people who voted for him.