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The 1985 Liberal-NDP Accord and the upcoming Ontario election

Despite all the public posturing by Messrs. McGuinty and Hudak, you can't believe a word either is uttering about what happens after Thursday night. The Liberal Leader can insist from now to doomsday that he won't contemplate any deal at all with the NDP, but he's blowing smoke. If he wants to stay premier, he won't have a choice. There will be a minority government -- have I ever been wrong? -- with the Grits and Progressive Conservatives neck and neck. So both will need Andrea Horwath and the NDP if they are to govern for any time at all.

This sounds a lot like the scenario in 1985 that led to the unprecedented and never-repeated Accord -- capital A -- between David Peterson's Liberals and Bob Rae's NDP (yes, youngsters, that Mr. Rae). There could be lessons to learn from history that feels awfully familiar.

The story really begins in 1975, when for the first time in 30 years Ontario's fabled Conservative organization, the Big Blue Machine, failed to win a majority government but won enough seats to be asked to form government. The NDP came second, and we announced that we'd support or defeat Bill Davis's government depending on the legislation it introduced. Mr. Davis agreed to implement a couple of key planks in our campaign -- occupational health legislation and rent control for apartments. That was a major breakthrough for us. Besides, Mr. Davis's Red Tories were a different, less strident breed from the Conservatives of today. Premier Davis and NDP leader Stephen Lewis had a cordial and respectful relationship even if their ideological differences were often significant.

Jump to the 1985 Ontario election. Mr. Davis resigns and is replaced by Frank Miller, on the conservative wing of the PC party. Mr. Miller was the bridge between the old moderate PCs and the emerging American-style conservatism of Mike Harris, Stephen Harper and Tim Hudak. The result was ambiguous. Mr. Miller lost 18 seats but with 52, still had four more than Mr. Peterson, who gained 14. But the Liberals came first in total votes by exactly 0.9 percentage points, 37.9 per cent to 37 per cent (exactly what polls are calling for Thursday). Both parties were far from majority government territory. The NDP's 25 seats and 24 per cent of the vote were less than Mr. Rae anticipated (and again what pollsters are predicting this time) but made him kingmaker.

The wooing of the NDP was hot and heavy, but New Democrats were themselves split. First, some of the old guard from 1975, including me and Stephen Lewis (even though he was by then busy at the United Nations) instinctively favoured a 1975 solution: Go with the PCs, the devil you know. The appeal of this option was greatly enhanced by the unexpected assurances given by Miller emissaries that despite his deep-down conservatism, "There's nothing you can ask that Frank won't give." Hugh Mackenzie, one of the NDP's three-person negotiating committee, remembers this Conservative desperation vividly, as do I, to whom PC operative Hugh Segal spoke those very words.

Others in the NDP disagreed, probably including Bob Rae. This central issue was resolved by a fluke encounter at Toronto airport between a Toronto Star reporter and Bob White, then president of the Canadian Autoworkers, Canada's most highly-regarded union leader and a loyal lifelong New Democrat. Mr. White did not equivocate: The province had obviously voted to end 45 years of Tory rule and the NDP had an absolute obligation to respect that judgment. When the story broke, the promoters of a deal with the Miller camp conceded on the spot. Mr. White was right, and we knew it.

Hugh Mackenzie's NDP negotiating committee now met with Mr. Peterson's trio. While Bob Rae and other New Democrats favoured a coalition, perhaps with Mr. Rae and several more NDPers sitting in cabinet, this radical proposition had too little support ever to be raised formally. Liberals later made it abundantly clear that Mr. Peterson would never have considered it. Instead, the two parties agreed on a formal, detailed signed Accord setting out the terms of the compact. The Liberals committed themselves, over the next two years, to introduce a series of specific progressive measures most of which they were unlikely otherwise to have touched with a 10-foot pole and that the Conservatives could surely never have stomached. These included pay equity, labour law reform, social housing, environmental legislation and the protection of Medicare, with timelines clearly set out.

This historic agreement was very good for Ontario but, in the short run, deadly for the NDP. In the 1987 election the province gave David Peterson a massive majority. His triumph lasted for three years.

There are many lessons embedded in this little tale -- especially with election history seemingly about to be repeated. But which ones will be considered and which will prevail after Thursday evening no one can yet tell.

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail.

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