Twenty-five years ago today, Bob Rae was sworn in as Ontario's premier.
On this morning 25 years ago, a ceremony took place at Convocation Hall. At the podium was Bob Rae, being sworn in as the first NDP premier of Ontario. His speech reflected on the unexpected thrill of victory he and his colleagues had experienced nearly a month earlier:
They say that the greatest joys in life are those that are unexpected. This day and this ceremony certainly fall into this category. The new government that is taking office today is made up of men and women from across the province, from all walks of life. Few of us ran in the last election feeling our party would win the election on September 6th; we ran because we had a message to bring to the Ontario public, because the cause of social democracy made sense to us and, in some cases, because no one else was willing to run.
The swearing-in marked the end of what had been a wild contest. When the 37-day campaign began, David Peterson looked like he would sleepwalk to victory. So he was calling an election two years early—polling was good, why not secure another majority government?
That arrogance undid the Liberals. Their campaign started so lazily that their headquarters still wasn’t equipped with a functioning phone system five days into the race, and workers arrived at the party bus only to find computer equipment was still boxed up. It also didn’t help that Peterson was publicly told off at his campaign launch by Toronto environmental activist (and current city councillor) Gord Perks.
With more than 50 per cent popularity in early polls, Liberal support slid. Many factors were at work: a growing sense that Ontario was ruled by arrogant yuppies who cozied up to developers and Bay Street, resulting in massive cost overruns for publicly-funded projects like SkyDome; the Patti Starr affair, where several MPPs were mixed up in a scheme diverting funds from a charitable organization into political coffers; Peterson’s deep involvement in constitutional crises like the Meech Lake Accord, which irritated many voters tired of the surrounding debates. Add in a sense the economy was faltering, and many observers wondered if the election call was a bad idea.
On the opposition benches, the once-mighty Progressive Conservatives were slowly rebuilding. Broken financially and spiritually, they had only chosen their first permanent leader in three years, Mike Harris, in May 1990. Internal party polling suggested they might win as few as four seats. When the writ dropped, only 31 candidates had been nominated. It didn’t help they shared the same party name as increasingly unpopular PM Brian Mulroney.
As for the NDP, Rae warned his caucus to prepare for an early election, one he privately decided would be his last as party leader. He was pessimistic about their chances, figuring that at best they’d play kingmaker as they had five years earlier. Some party members were still ticked off about how the accord Rae made with Peterson in 1985 cost them dearly during the 1987 campaign.
Rae quickly benefited from the Liberals’ poor public performance, attacking the government’s integrity. As media scrutiny grew, the campaign team cranked out An Agenda for People over a few days in August. Promises included government-run auto insurance, stricter rent controls, increases to the minimum wage and daycare spaces, strengthening pay equity, and higher corporate taxes. Rae’s campaigning style improved, showing a stronger sense of humour than in previous races. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on lowering taxes and not much else—that message didn’t play well yet, requiring a few years to mature into the Common Sense Revolution.
As September began, all three Toronto dailies endorsed the Liberals. Some of the reasons were ridiculous—the Globe and Mail claimed Peterson’s government was “composed of generally nice people with good intentions.” The Sun couldn’t quite shed its Tory leanings, insisting voters had to choose between Peterson and Harris to avoid economic catastrophe under the NDP. Had they not been so weak, one senses the Sun would have preferred backing Harris, of whom they declared “time may well prove him to be a great leader and premier, providing he sticks to conservatism.” The Star saw the NDP as a credible alternative, but felt the Liberal economic record warranted their return.
These endorsements didn’t sink in. By campaign’s ended, panic-stricken Liberals attacked anything, but found few listening. At a campaign stop during the final week at a Shriners rib dinner in Woodstock, 320 of 350 ticket-buyers chose not to show up until Peterson left. Those who were there concentrated more on drinking beer and playing cards, impatient to get to the ribs.
Going into election day, Rae saw the polls pointing to a minority win. He wound up with 74 seats, compared to 36 for the Liberals and 20 for the PCs. Peterson lost his seat in London. In Metro Toronto, rookie NDP victors included Rosario Marchese, Tony Silipo, and current city councillors Anthony Peruzza and Giorgio Mammoliti.
Billing himself as “George,” Mammoliti, then a maintenance superintendent for the Metro Toronto Housing Authority and president of his CUPE local, defeated Liberal incumbent Claudio Polsinelli in the riding of Yorkview by 1,600 votes. He accused Polsinelli of banking on support among the community’s Italians, observing over a victory beer that “this is a multicultural riding and you have to pay attention to all groups, not just one.” He had campaigned on improving rent reviews, strengthening security at housing complexes, and improving Jane-Finch’s lousy public image.
A notable local NDP victor was Gary Malkowski in York East. Defeating Liberal Christine Hart, (who had resigned as culture and communications minister earlier in the year over integrity issues surrounding her nomination) by just under 800 votes, Malkowski became the first deaf politician elected federally or provincially. Though a rookie, the Star felt he conducted his campaign with “the air of a veteran politician.”
At his victory party at the La Rotanda ballroom on Dufferin Street, Rae joked that “maybe a summer election isn’t a bad idea after all.” His young daughter Lisa’s reaction to the win? “Daddy! You’re now the boss of everybody!”
The next five years were difficult, as the worsening economy and the government’s inexperience didn’t always mix. The mere mention of Rae’s name still induces agony among some voters. While the NDP benefited from voter rage, the 1990 election showed that for a moment, it was possible for a party which had largely been viewed as the conscience of the provincial legislature to overcome the socialist boogeyman stereotypes and hold office.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Rae noted while casting his vote, “the politics of fear is over.” If only that was the case more often in the electoral realm.
Additional material from Loyal No More: Ontario’s Struggle for a Separate Destiny by John Ibbitson (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2001); From Protest to Power by Bob Rae (Toronto: Penguin, 1997); the September 4, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 17, 1990 edition of Maclean’s; the September 1, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 2, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.