Bill Davis harkened to when progressive meant something

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The province is mourning the passage at age 92 of a remarkable human being in the person of former Progressive Conservative Premier Bill Davis. The complete antithesis of a populist, the province’s 18th premier kept a calm hand on the provincial tiller no matter what storms swirled around Queen’s Park. He brought bland to an artform, and in doing so managed to build bridges that would seem insurmountable in today’s polarized political arenas.

In another wide divergence from the current Progressive Conservative approach, Mr. Davis was styled the “education premier,” holding that portfolio from 1971 to 1985. He is credited with creating the province’s community college system, created two universities and established TVO, the province’s public broadcaster, as an educational initiative.

Mr. Davis took his leave at the top of his game, remaining hugely popular even after winning four elections, including two minorities and two majorities. 

He put aside partisan gamesmanship to work tirelessly with then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to repatriate the constitution.

While Mr. Davis put forward a laid back persona, he was far from anyone’s fool when it came to navigating the rocks and shoals of provincial politics and proved that you do not have to be provocative or pompous to get things done. It is no accident that he managed to hold onto his seat following then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s decision to cancel the Avro Arrow program, even though most of the 14,000 laid off workers lived in his riding.

His tireless pilgrimages to new school openings helped lay a strong foundation for his eventual run for the leadership of what was then an unbeatable Big Blue Machine.

Mr. Davis was a reporter’s nightmare, known for delaying decisions to the last possible minute and keeping his own counsel close. He was the master of offering up long rambling answers that somehow managed to wander off the question.

Mr. Davis proved conclusively that, in his time and place, “bland works.” But he covered toughness and shrewd calculation with a velvet glove that caused many to underestimate him.

While Mr. Davis has been described as a “red Tory,” the truth is that he was a pragmatist who was able to adapt and intuit what the people of his province really wanted. In that regard, he put the progressive into Progressive Conservative, looking forward rather than back.

He described his approach as “flexible” and went on to stop the Spadina Expressway, brought in rent control, lowered the drinking age to 18 while limiting public servant wage increases and brought in a massive infrastructure program during the 1980s recession. He even bought a significant stake in an oil company to look behind that industry’s notoriously opaque curtain.

In his own estimation, however, his greatest accomplishment was the 1981 constitutional accord—although his notwithstanding clause has dulled that shine under his latest successor.

Mr. Davis leaves our nation as a quiet giant whose calm and pragmatic, even non-partisan, approach to government is sorely missed by many on all sides of the aisle.

He will be missed.