by Gerald Caplan. Special to The Globe and Mail.
When the NDP won government in Ontario exactly 20 years ago, it constituted the greatest advance for social democracy in North American history.
It’s true that British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had all elected NDP governments and that progressives had won small victories in various parts of the United States. But none of them (I hope this doesn’t hurt their feelings) mattered in the same way Ontario then did. It was the economic heartland of Canada, the home of much of Canada’s industry and finance. What happened in Ontario impacted all Canadians. Now it was under the control of Bob Rae and the New Democrats.
Reflecting this reality, within months Mr. Rae’s government faced an unrelenting, brutal four-year onslaught that was unprecedented in Canadian history.
The attacks came from all sides. It is no exaggeration to say hysterical fear-mongering and sabotage was the order of the day. Launched within the very first year of the new government, the attackers included every manner of business big and small, both Canadian and American-owned, almost all private media, the police (especially in Toronto), landlords and lobbying/government relations firms. Their goal was clear, and they had the money and power to achieve it.
They were determined to undermine the government every step of the way, to frustrate the implementation of its plans and to assure its ultimate defeat. In all three goals they were successful. The considerable achievements of the government – often forgotten or dismissed –were wrought in the face of a deep recession and ferocious obstruction.
The tactics were not necessarily subtle. Though the Soviet Union was ignominiously imploding, right-wing columnists such as Diane Francis and Barbara Amiel actually resorted to old-fashioned red baiting, smearing the government as “red” or “communist.” And after the new finance minister’s very first meeting with the banking community , a bank vice-president told him, in the presence of an aide: “Nice speech, Mr. Minister, but we’re going to kill you.” And they did.
Conrad Black was a leading executioner. Lord Black swore loudly that on principle he’d never invest in Ontario under an NDP government. Other corporate interests threatened a virtual strike of capital unless the government relented on its intentions to introduce higher business taxes and to strengthen union rights, environmental regulations and equity programs.
Mr. Rae and treasurer Floyd Laughren made themselves easily accessible to business representatives, many of whom ran Canadian branch plants of huge American multinationals, only to be threatened with capital blackmail. The premier was warned that their U.S. head offices weren’t about to invest further in Ontario unless the government abandoned most of the programs it had run on.
Bond traders declared that slashing government programs to reduce the deficit was a prerequisite to Ontario borrowing at competitive rates, even though Ontario’s deficit was equivalent to that of Conservative-run Alberta. Suddenly the entire media was fixated on the government’s threatened credit ratings, never mind that Ontario had the only Standard & Poor’s AAA rating in the country. The Social Credit government in British Columbia, the Conservatives in Alberta and Robert Bourassa’s Liberals in Quebec all had lower credit ratings. Yet only in Ontario was the government threatened.
NDP government decision-makers, while innocent about so much, at least understood that the corporate world was not given to bluffing. Time after time they responded to the endless corporate blackmail by compromising on policies and commitments. In this way, they alienated many of their own followers but without ever appeasing business interests. They never could.
Some business protests bordered on the disloyal. Hysterical landlords took out an ad in The Wall Street Journal warning Americans not to invest in “leftist Ontario.” Others demanded the complete repudiation by the government of its most cherished legislation, as when several coalitions of powerful business interests, managed by government relations firms such as Hill & Knowlton, demanded the NDP scrap its entire plan to amend the Labour Relations Act. This was the kind of class warfare Lenin might have admired, especially since the government had already withdrawn many of its intended changes in order to meet business criticism.
One front organization, the “All-Business Coalition,” won headlines for warning that amendments the government had already disavowed would cost 450,000 jobs and cost $20-billion in investment. All the while the same groups were deliberately frightening investment away from the province.
Hostility to these fictional amendments also led to unusual solidarity among Toronto’s rival newspapers. Of course hostile editorials were fully expected. Less predictable were the full-page statements in the press denouncing the labor amendments. Even more unprecedented was the delegation consisting of the publishers of all three dailies who appeared in the premier’s office to express their hostility in person. The media in general played a key role in mobilizing perpetual hostility to the government, with business columnists regularly stirring up their readers while the Toronto Sun especially wallowed in the sheer joy of unrestrained excess and fabrication.
Throughout the five years of the Rae government, the Sun was its most powerful and effective foe, doing everything in its considerable power to damage the government. It repeatedly set the agenda for the entire media, even though competing reporters knew much of it was sheer hooey. The Sun gleefully sensationalized embarrassing facts, mere rumors, vicious innuendos and obvious lies, with no attempt to discriminate among them.
Perhaps the most chilling and underestimated of the government’s enemies were the Toronto police, whose actions at times bordered dangerously on virtual insubordination against the civilian authorities. Here too certain newspapers and radio commentators repeatedly and deliberately inflamed angry officers against the government. Most successful was the Sun’s ongoing, systematic campaign to drive a wedge between the government and the Toronto police force, sometimes with the collusion of the police themselves.
The Sun and senior Toronto police officials maintained a troubling relationship. In one particularly outrageous episode, they colluded in smearing an NDP appointee to the police board on the very evening of her swearing-in. The Sun published intimate information on the appointee that could come, many thought, only from the office of the chief. Sun readers then began their 1991 Victoria Day weekend with a huge banner headline proclaiming “COP COMMISSIONER PART OF OPP PROBE”. The story claimed the new appointee had been discovered in a car in the middle of the night with a very shady operator connected to an even shadier operator.
It was a blatant frame-up. On Victoria Day itself, the Sun came clean. They publicly acknowledged the sheerimpossibility of anyone confusing the police commission member with the real passenger the OPP had found in the car. A Sun reporter described an “undeclared but very real state of war that exists between the new, NDP-appointed members of the police board and the great majority of the Metro [Toronto] force.” But that was pure mischief. The only war was the one the Sun was methodically fomenting.
The government introduced regulations that substituted the Constitution for the Queen in the oath that cops had to swear. Many media swiftly exploited the occasion to further exacerbate tensions between the police and the NDP. Yet the change had actually been initiated by the previous Liberal government and had been recommended by a committee consisting mainly of police. Their work had been completed when the NDP took office; the Rae government was simply implementing their recommendations.
I documented these facts publicly after interviewing numerous police reps, every one of whom supported the new oath. Nor could they see what the big deal was about. I asked the Toronto Sun, CFRB radio and CFTO-TV, who had most flagrantly misled the public on the issue, to demonstrate good faith by apologizing. Not one admitted the slightest fault. Good faith was in short supply in those years.
There are a world of studies yet to be written about the Ontario NDP’s difficult and controversial years in office, none more important than the nature of the saboteurs who organized their very own Ontario coup. This includes much of the business community, government relations firms, the media and the police. There are lessons to learn here about the limits of left-wing politics in Canada. None of them are encouraging if you are a left-winger.