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Bill Davis presided over a kinder, gentler, and altogether more intelligent legislature

Bill Davis presided over a kinder, gentler, and altogether more intelligent legislature

The recent passing of the Late Ontario Premier Bill Davis, calls to mind the diminution in the calibre and tone of debate in the Ontario Legislature of the Davis era compared to now. A random glance at the Ontario Hansard of November 1977 gives a glimpse of the wit of Davis, but also of the more respectful tone from all sides of the House.

Debate kicked off over a two-week-old press report that Clare Westcott, Davis’ close advisor and a Deputy Minister, was holding private meetings with Conservatives to discuss patronage appointments. Opposition member Albert Roy, wanted to know why a senior public servant, supposedly non-partisan,  was participating in partisan political meetings.

Before Davis could answer, members of his caucus engaged in some heckling of Roy, who was an Ottawa lawyer, and who apparently continued to practice law while an MPP—not unusual at that time. But was tied up with his practice for two weeks and absent from the House.

Bill Newman, Agriculture Minister: “Where have you been the last two weeks, practicing law?”

Mr. Roy: “No, I have been giving him two weeks to prepare the answer.”

Bill Davis: “Mr. Speaker, I understand it took the hon. Member two weeks to get here to ask the question. It is true that people do get together; do meet, that is true.”

Mr. Roy: “How can the Premier possibly justify a civil servant, who is supposed to be apolitical, meeting with basically a political group? How can he justify that these appointments are non-political, based on merit, when the only people giving him advice are, in fact, Tories?”

Bill Davis: “I listen to advice from many quarters. I find that on balance the best advice I get happens to be from Progressive Conservatives.”

The debate brings to light several interesting distinctions between the tone of the legislature then from now. First the fact that members, especially lawyers, continued to pursue their businesses while serving as MPPs. But perhaps most striking is the apparent belief by Roy that those political appointments ought to be merit-based and apolitical. Such appointments today wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, because the attitude around Queen’s Park and for that matter, Ottawa, for the last several governments is “to the victor go the spoils.”

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