Twenty-five years ago this October 1, Bob Rae was sworn in as Ontario’s first, and still only, NDP premier.
Twenty-five years later, political observers are still debating how good or bad that government was. And Rae’s leaving the New Democrats to join the Liberals – actually becoming interim national leader of the Grits – has done nothing to simplify that debate.
A reminder: Rae’s majority government was sworn in October 1, 1990 at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. Before the ceremony, one of the songs playing in the background was “Side By Side,” whose memorable opening lines were: “Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money; maybe we’re ragged and funny.” Talk about an omen.
Rae’s majority came on the strength of capturing 37.6 percent of the total votes cast. It was the smallest percentage of the total vote that delivered a majority government since George Drew’s Tories took 41.5 percent of the votes for a majority in 1945. Yes, the vote splits in our first-past-the-post system were very generous to the NDP in 1990. Unprecedentedly so, in fact.
While Rae’s victory was, as former NDP leader Stephen Lewis described it on election night “beyond my wildest fantasies,” the new premier’s timing was lousy. He was taking over just in time to preside over the second worst recession since the Great Depression. Jobs disappeared, government revenues plummeted, and day by day, New Democrats had to jettison their well-intentioned promises. The toughest disappointment to swallow came on the party’s first anniversary in power, when Rae had to announce the government would not be going ahead with its plan to implement public auto insurance. Laying off thousands of workers in the private insurance sector in the middle of the recession – most of them women – was just not on. True believers stopped believing quite a bit when that happened.
Twenty-five years later, we can see what awful options Rae had with much clearer vision. He could have opted to keep the deficit and expenditures lower by firing a lot of public servants, and whacking higher income Ontarians and corporations with massive tax increases. Instead, he did some of what Stephen Harper did fifteen years later when the Conservative leader was confronted by the Great Recession – he ran huge deficits to protect people from the worst ravages of the tanking economy. He also brought in a “Social Contract” which required every public servant to take a bunch of unpaid days off work (“Rae Days”), thereby saving thousands of jobs. Years later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Premier Gary Filmon of Manitoba took similar measures.
The big difference was timing. Harper had every other party in the House of Commons screaming at him to let ‘er rip on spending. Conversely, Rae had two opposition parties, the entire business sector, and even his friends in labour criticizing him for whatever action he took. His enemies got more ruthless while his friends abandoned him.
When Harper went back to the polls after guiding the ship of state through the Great Recession, Canadians rewarded him with a majority government. When Rae went back to the polls in 1995, the public put him back into third place. Unions, angry in particular for the Rae Days imposed on their members, campaigned against their former ally. That strategy backfired: Rae’s defeat helped usher in Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution, which became known for its get-tough attitude towards those same unions.
To be sure, the Rae government had its share of problems which added to the impression of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. One cabinet minister became embroiled in a sex scandal in which there was no actual sex. Another took a lie detector test to prove she was lying, rather than telling the truth. Yet another posed as a Sunshine Boy and acted more like an opposition member inside the cabinet than a minister of the crown on the government’s team.
The NDP also did some very un-socialist things. Desperate for revenues, it approved the construction of Ontario’s first huge casinos, despite that being anathema to the base. It also green-lit the building of the province’s first toll highway, the 407. (Rae intended the highway to remain publicly owned, but the government of Mike Harris privatized it in 1999). After negotiations failed, the NDP also unilaterally abrogated collective agreements with public sector unions, which caused no end of discord in the House of Labour.
Rae also helped negotiate the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, the country’s most ambitious attempt to finish the constitutional job started in 1981. But because he co-signed the deal with an increasingly unpopular Brian Mulroney, the accord failed as it became a referendum on the PM rather than merits of the agreement. What could have been an historic moment of glory turned, once again, into failure.
Bob Rae always joked he wanted to be premier of Ontario in the worst way – and even he jokes in self-deprecating fashion that he was. But twenty-five years later, Thomas Mulcair is still taking shots at Rae on the campaign trail, saying NDP governments have a solid track record of balancing their budgets.
“There was one exception – but he turned out to be a Liberal,” Mulcair jests, referring to Rae’s partisan switch. In fact, while the audience at Monday night’s Munk Debate was snickering at Mulcair’s claim of NDP fiscal probity, the NDP leader trotted out the line again and quickly turned that snickering into full-throated laughs. The line still works.
But given what Rae did 25 years ago looks an awful lot like the deficit spending all three major parties decided was necessary to help Canada ride the great global recession better than many other countries, is it time to stop thinking of the Rae government as a punch line? If not, why not?
Image credit: Jeff Goode/ Toronto Star
This Thursday's episode of The Agenda features an in-depth discussion on the legacy of the Bob Rae government in Ontario.
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