The death of Bill Davis at age 92 is a reminder of what might be called the golden age of Ontario politics. Even before the fourteen years he served as premier of Ontario he had already made his mark as a hands-on Minister of Education and Minister of Universities. During his time in those portfolios, he established the Community College system in Ontario, and oversaw the establishment of both Brock and Trent universities. He more than quadrupled the province’s spending on education between 1962 and 1971.
When Davis became Premier in 1971 he continued policies that clearly demonstrated the progressive side of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives. One of his first acts was to cancel the controversial Spadina Expressway in Toronto, saying, “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.” Its incredible to think that the most productive terms in the Davis Premiership were between 1975 and 1981 when he headed minority governments. Davis surrounded himself with progressive policy makers like Hugh Segal and a young John Tory. During this period he greatly continued the expansion of Ontario’s health care and education systems.
During the Davis minority years the Ontario Legislature was a place of sparkling debate. The NDP were led by the brilliant Stephen Lewis and the Liberals by Robert Nixon, who at age 14 witnessed his father Harry Nixon sworn in as the last Liberal Premier in Ontario up to that time and had Ontario politics in his blood. The front benches of the government and the opposition were filled with people of substance. Compared to Nixon and Lewis, Davis was accused of being a bland, boring speaker, but actually he was possessed of a self-deprecating wit and could hold his own.
When this writer was in charge of news at CHCH, our Queen’s Park reporters told us that Davis always watched his news on CHCH, rather than the Toronto stations, in an effort to get a sense of what people were thinking outside of the Toronto bubble. CHCH Queens Park reporter Bob Ireland would tell the story about how he found himself at a Davis speech, and to his horror, in those pre-electronic news gathering days, discovered that his Cameraman had only about sixty seconds of film left in the camera. The word got to Davis and he started his speech. Then he turned to Bob Ireland and said, “OK Bob Ireland you can turn on your camera now,” and delivered the sound bite that was the essence of his announcement.
In the Davis era. major strides were made in public transit with the inauguration of GO train and bus service, the last large scale attempt to address public housing, the community college system which has created millions of well-trained professionals, and the beginnings of the modern health care system. The late Wentworth North MPP Eric Cunningham, A fierce partisan Liberal, served for nine years in the Davis era. And often remarked that Davis was a brilliant politician who provided Ontario with some of the best government it ever had.