Bill Davis and Progressive Conservatives from a bygone era

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A few years ago, around the time of another Ontario election, the actor and director Sarah Polley was flying home to Toronto from Los Angeles. She found herself seated beside a nice-looking, pleasant, older fellow who clearly recognized her. They chatted amiably. He seemed especially interested in her political views, which were known to be leftish. He urged her to consider supporting Ontario's then PC leader John Tory, whose quality the man said he would vouch for.

Polley said she couldn't even contemplate voting Conservative; when she was 15, she'd had two teeth broken by police as she protested Conservative premier Mike Harris's harsh policies on welfare and poverty. She said maybe in an earlier time, when Bill Davis was Tory premier, it would have been possible. She'd often heard that he was a fine person. Her seatmate beamed. "You've made an old man very happy," said Bill Davis.

So I tried to watch Tuesday's election debate through Bill Davis's eyes. Did he start when his name was invoked in praise by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty against current Tory Leader Tim Hudak? Probably not. They were a savvy bunch, those old Progressive Conservatives; they knew their party had been swiped from under them. Even the party acronym, PC, gradually became associated with a different term: Politically Correct -- a clever piece of rebranding.

I'm thinking of Davis, Joe Clark, Flora McDonald, Lowell Murray and Hugh Segal -- still in the Senate -- or best-in-show, the late, great Star columnist Dalton Camp. You'd probably have enjoyed sitting beside any of them on a long flight, as Sarah Polley did, and not been tempted to fake snoozing (a test for politicians once proposed by Alexander Cockburn). Never mind whether they should be called "Red Tories." They sought power in order to do something, not just punish certain demographics by cutting welfare (Harris), building prisons (Harper) or creating chain gangs (Hudak). They didn't think government was "the problem" like Ronald Reagan, a hero of their right-wing conservative successors, or that society didn't exist at all, like another such hero, Margaret Thatcher. Labels and ideology mattered little to them.

They had real success provincially: Davis's PCs in Ontario, Peter Lougheed's in Alberta. Federally they felt thwarted. At their last PC leadership convention, Peter Mackay was elected on a written pledge not to unite with the Reform party -- which he went on to do. Some of them whined, as if they knew it was already over, that they'd never got a break in the media, compared to Liberals.

They probably did deserve better, but who doesn't? Merit is rarely decisive in real life. And there is such a thing as the zeitgeist, the mood of the age. They shared the ZG of an earlier time, along with the Liberals and the NDP. It involved a sense of the usefulness of government and the importance of some kind of social solidarity, expressed largely through public institutions and programs.

The current ZG is harsher, very individualistic and also shared by all parties. Even the NDP's Andrea Horwath showed a quick flash of the anti-immigrant card during the debate, calling for jobs, "not just for new Canadians but for young people." Then it was gone, whoosh. What was that? That was the zeitgeist, folks.

Fortunately the zeitgeist isn't a godlike, unaffectable entity. It's partly the result of deliberate human effort and resources (like ideas and money), and it has to somehow reflect underlying realities. These include the reality of human interconnectedness and mutual need, which are hard to reflect without some role for government and society.

I sometimes wonder if the shrillest attacks on Big Government and the Gravy Train mightn't reflect an awareness of how vulnerable we'd all be without those public and social supports. It can be terrifying to feel that, and tempting to deny it so as not to face it. They don't want to feel vulnerable, since they do. In that case, the insights of Bill Davis's era remain useful, even if they'll surely take a new form as a new zeitgeist unfurls.

I'm glad the conversation with Sarah Polley brought him happiness and I wish him more in the years to come.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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