Bill Davis is being called a lot of things this week – Ontario’s best premier, the premier who brought Ontario into the modern age, the premier who was decent and civil, the premier who put Ontario’s and Canada’s interests before his own.
And it’s true, Davis was all of these things.
It might be difficult for those who didn’t live through, or don’t remember, the era in which Davis served as premier and as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (1971 to 1985), but there was a time when words and phrases like “decency” and “civility”, “modesty” and “unselfish public service” could be used to describe a politician – from any party – and those words and phrases wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
But in a lot of ways, that era’s politicians also reflected the character of their constituents. The public back then didn’t expect as much from government, and Ontarians certainly didn’t expect people like Bill Davis to solve most of their problems.
Indeed, many were wary of charismatic politicians who campaigned well and promised a lot, yet governed poorly and delivered little.
Davis always governed far better than he campaigned. And his record speaks to that. As education minister in the Sixties he oversaw the establishment of the community college system and as many as four new universities. As premier in the Seventies his government introduced an environment ministry, regional governments for several jurisdictions, established TVO, and continued to expand and refine the province’s educational system. That eventually included complete funding for Ontario’s Roman Catholic school system. The latter decision was controversial, but Davis determined “that it was the right thing to do.”
He wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes, but Davis and his Cabinet were mostly cautious. If there was a scandal, the fact it existed likely gave it greater prominence, because scandals in that era were rare.
It’s interesting to note that, even 35 years after his departure, few if any of his government’s policies and decisions have been overturned.
Yet Davis and his government never enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people. He survived four elections as premier: two resulted in minority governments. His final election, in 1981, produced a majority government.
And when he retired in 1985, he and the Progressive Conservatives were leading the polls. Davis left on top.
Even today he’s remembered as the best premier Ontario ever had.
– Peter Epp