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 The Ontario PC Leadership Race Seems Murky, 

 But History Offers Some Lessons For The Party

 

By Randall White

Ontario PC President Richard Ciano recently announced that more than 80,000 party members are eligible to vote for a new leader. They will cast their ballots on May 3 and May 7. Results will be announced on Saturday, May 9.

Right now almost everything else about the 2015 Ontario Conservative leadership race still seems murky. 

It is true that the three remaining candidates are, in alphabetical order, Patrick Brown, Christine Elliott, and Monte McNaughton. But it would be rash to jump to further conclusions just yet. 

At such moments, looking at political history sometimes helps, and so the story of Conservatives in Ontario provincial politics since 1867 may shed some light on today's race. 

At the party's origin, John A. Macdonald from Ontario, leader of the then-named "Liberal-Conservative" party, dominated Canadian federal politics. 

But his party soon found itself in perpetual opposition in Canada’s most populous province. 

John Sandfield Macdonald, first premier of the new Ontario from 1867–1871, is sometimes claimed as a Conservative.

Yet Sandfield Macdonald saw himself as a “Mauve,” — in between the Liberal Reds and Conservative Blues. He called his first Ontario provincial government the “Patent Combination,” standing above party conflict.

Sandfield Macdonald’s founding coalition was succeeded by what became Oliver Mowat’s first Liberal "Great Reform Government" in 1872. 

Mowat won the next six provincial elections. Even after his departure in 1896, the Liberals remained in office until 1905. 

James Pliny Whitney, from Eastern Ontario, took over the provincial Conservative party in 1896. It took some time, but his Conservatives won an Ontario election — at last — nine years later!

The Conservatives went on to win the next three elections. His fellow Conservative William Hearst succeeded Whitney, from Sault Ste. Marie, in 1914. Hearst remained in office until 1919. 

The Whitney Conservatives shrewdly borrowed what Oliver Moat’s biographer, A. Margaret Evans, has called the “Mowat formula” of “cautiously progressive social and economic policies in substantial harmony with the ideals of the people.”

According to a pundit of the day, Whitney’s popularity was “partly due to the fact that he is in no sense a conservative. Having dished the Whigs, he has now stolen their clothes.”

The first age of Conservative Ontario was briefly interrupted by the Farmer-Labour government of 1919–1923.

But soon, another Tory leader from Eastern Ontario, Howard Ferguson, carried on, winning elections in 1923, 1926, and 1929.

Ferguson was a somewhat more rambunctious Ontario Tory, noted for such rants as: “With our Utopian, wide-open franchise the mob rules. The problem is to capture the imagination of the mob.”

Fellow Conservative George Henry succeeded Ferguson, from York East, in 1930.  

In any case the first age of Conservative Ontario ended during the Great Depression in 1934, when Mitch Hepburn’s agrarian democratic Liberals defeated the Henry regime. 

But then again in 1943, George Drew’s re-christened “Progressive Conservatives” won a minority government, with just four more seats than a surging Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the ancient ancestor of today’s New Democrats. 

Drew’s victory began the Ontario PC dynasty that governed Ontario for the next 42 years, under six different premiers.

Its barber-shop philosopher, Leslie Frost from Lindsay, believed that “government is business ... the people’s business.”

The PC dynasty also, however, brought the modern welfare state to Canada’s most populous province.  

In 1985, choice of Frank Miller to succeed William Davis as party leader and provincial premier in 1985 partly reflected a growing view that the Ontario Progressive Conservatives ought to become more of a real conservative party. 

But it also led to the defeat of the PC dynasty, and the governments of David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s New Democrats.

Then the real conservative PC government of Mike Harris (and Ernie Eves) experimented in office, from 1995 to 2003. 

Ever since Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals defeated Ernie Eves in 2003, the Conservatives have been in opposition.

Two provocative thoughts can be deduced from their longer history: 

(1) Ontario Conservatives have usually done best when they have not been so conservative. As Tory Hugh Segal has written: “no Conservative wins an election in Ontario by getting only Conservative votes. The Conservative core on a good day is 24 percent.”

(2) Like the Ontario Liberals of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives today are at least theoretically at risk of dwindling into the voice of an earlier rural and small town old Ontario.

What all this might mean for the current leadership race is for the party members eligible to vote on May 3 or May 7 to decide. 

It's interesting to note, however, that Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives did very well north of the Great Lakes in the 2011 federal election.

The people of Ontario have never been in any party’s pocket forever.  

At some point the Ontario Conservatives, under whatever exact name, will probably govern the province again.  

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : February 18, 2015

View all of Randall White's columns
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