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There has lately been more than one allusion to the Ontario Liberals’ “second straight election disaster” last June 2, 2022, when they won only 8 of the Legislative Assembly’s 124 seats.

In fact, this was slightly better than the 7 seats they won in 2018. But it was also, no doubt and for the second time in a row, not even enough to qualify for official party status.

At the same time, in the 2022 election the Liberals actually won a slightly greater share of the province-wide popular vote than the official-opposition New Democrats (23.9% vs 23.7%), who took 31 seats!

(The almost crazy imbalance between seats and popular vote here of course flows from the sometimes extreme vagaries of the current electoral system, which Liberals had a chance to change and didn’t, and New Democrats used to criticize.)

It is also true enough that in three of the four main public opinion polls since the 2022 election the Liberals have continued to finish ahead of the NDP in the province-wide popular vote — in the latest Abacus poll by as much as six points.

There is as well a history of writing the Ontario Liberals’ epitaph too early. In the 1970s many believed the Ontario New Democrats would replace the provincial Liberals, following precedents in the Mother of Parliaments across the sea.

Then in the middle of the 1980s David Peterson from the university city of London, Ontario  liberated an increasingly urban voting base from a once glorious agrarian democratic past in the family farm heartland, that then did appear to have seen its better days.

Subsequently Peterson’s new more urban Liberals led to the governing parties of Dalton McGuinty from Ottawa, and Kathleen Wynne from the old suburbs of Toronto.

Meanwhile, at their recent annual general meeting in Hamilton, Ontario Liberals “overwhelmingly voted for a one-member-one-vote system” to elect the next party leader.

With the next fixed-date provincial election in 2026 now dimly in the headlights, a few party members  may also be having second thoughts about the rural side of the old Ontario Liberals, that Peterson’s new party for young urban professionals ultimately seemed to cast adrift.

In the 1960s Ontario Liberals were still obvious enough descendants of the old “Great Reform” agrarian democrats — a local variation on the wider family farm democracy of the anglophone North American Middle West.

The Great Reform Liberals dominated Ontario provincial politics in the confederation era under “Ontario’s Cromwell” Oliver Mowat (premier 1872–1896). Then they had a historic reprise under “Canada’s Huey Long” Mitch Hepburn, in the later 1930s and early 1940s.

This party’s deepest roots were in the Class 1 family farm land of Southwestern Ontario. Mowat’s seat in the legislature was Oxford North. Hepburn’s was Elgin (also the Canadian homeland of US liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose father was a farmer and prominent local Liberal).

The Ontario Liberals of the 1970s still had at least some of the old progressive rural mud of Southwestern Ontario visibly on their shoes.

Robert Nixon, leader 1966–1976 (and 1981–1982) was the last of this agrarian democratic line. And his final career as Premier David Peterson’s finance minister was a constructive link between the old rural and new urban order that finally led to McGuinty and Wynne.

The now arguably too urban Ontario Liberal Party of the 2020s could possibly use some of its long vanished agrarian democratic and “Great Reform” rural past today. Instincts of this sort played a part in the failed quest for Green Party leader Mike Schreiner as next Liberal leader.

(Mr. Schreiner grew up on a family farm in Kansas. And he currently sits for Guelph in the Legislative Assembly, home of the University of Guelph, formerly the Ontario Agricultural Collage — where John Kenneth Galbraith did his undergraduate degree.)

Is there some other way the current still somewhat misty Ontario Liberal leadership race of 2023 can bring the party’s family-farm democratic deep past at least a little back to life?

So far there doesn’t seem any obvious successor to Brant County farmer Robert Nixon in the contest. And the auto sector in Southwestern Ontario has built a base for urban New Democrats not old progressive rural Liberals.

The ancient history of the Ontario Liberal Party, however, is testament to the historical reality that a progressive rural community was once a dominant force in the regional politics of Canada’s most populous province.

A 2020s provincial Liberal movement that somehow managed to revive even a little of this old rural progressive tradition just might make a useful contribution to both present-day Ontario political culture — and its own partisan success in the 2026 election.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Political history can sometimes make our present political chaos and ineptitude seem somehow more bearable. Don’t worry. All this has happened before.

Not everyone will also think that the increasingly ancient history of even the most populous province of Ontario may have some interest for Canadian federal politics in 2021.

Yet some would likely enough compare a Liberal Justin Trudeau who lost to Conservative Erin O’Toole this coming September 20 with the Liberal David Peterson, who lost to the New Democrat Bob Rae in the 1990 Ontario provincial election.

Premier Peterson had called an election earlier than usual because this seemed good democratic politics. But the voters didn’t like it, and elected a new government instead.

On some parallel trajectory a Justin Trudeau who won only a second minority government in the 2021 election would compare nicely enough with another historic Ontario politician — the later widely admired Progressive Conservative premier who sadly passed away on August 8, 2021, William Grenville Davis.

Like Justin Trudeau in 2015, Bill Davis from Brampton won a majority government in his first contest as PC party leader in 1971. Then like PM Trudeau in 2019, he could only manage a minority government in his second election in 1975.

Eminent and sometimes even brilliant political advisors then urged Premier Davis to call a snap election in 1977.

Opinion polls seemed to suggest that the Ontario PC minority government could regain its Legislative Assembly majority in a fresh contest on June 9, 1977 — just as polls seemed to imply something similar for Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals earlier in 2021.

As it happened, the best the Davis PCs could do in 1977 was a second minority government. They were still short of even a bare majority in the Assembly.

At this point, the Ontario Liberals and New Democrats were not close enough to contemplate the kind of joint action to defeat the long-lived Progressive Conservative dynasty that the David Peterson Liberals and Bob Rae New Democrats would bring to life in 1985. (When William Davis’s successor as PC leader, Frank Miller, could manage no more than another minority government.)

In the 1970s the Ontario Liberals were still showing their historic ties to the old family-farm democracy that dominated the province in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries. The New Democrats had stronger urban industrial connections.

There were some subtleties of political arithmetic as well. Liberals and New Democrats together, for example, had only four more seats than the PCs in 1977, but 21 more in 1985. This made co-operation between the two opposition parties more realistic in 1985.

Back in 1977 the second William Davis PC minority government elected on June 9 would manage to survive until the first quarter of 1981. Perhaps partly because it was in some ways a progressive government, with which Liberals and New Democrats sometimes agreed, it managed to attract legislative majorities for three annual budgets.

Then, in a fresh election on March 19, 1981 the Davis PCs finally won a second majority government. And this gave a note of triumph to a career that ended with the premier’s retirement in 1985.

What does all this history mean today?

A Justin Trudeau who won only a second minority government on September 20, 2021, even though he called the snap election to win a majority government, would certainly have made a mistake. But the now admired Ontario Premier William Davis made the same mistake back in 1977. And he went on to finally win another majority government a few years later.

Justin Trudeau arguably has other things in common with William Davis in the 1970s and 1980s. Davis faced much criticism in office. He was too bland. He was all talk and no action. And his talk was just designed to obfuscate and confuse his critics.

In retrospect there is much agreement that Premier Davis managed a rather effective Ontario democratic government from 1971 to 1985.

He was also on the whole a crucial supporter of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the arduous federal-provincial negotiations that finally led to the Constitution Act, 1982, with all its challenging amending formulas alongside the landmark Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In any case a Justin Trudeau who won only a second minority government on September 20, 2021 could at least take some inspiration from the William Davis who finally won another majority government in 1981, quite a while after his mistaken election on June 9, 1977!

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.