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That famous accord between the Liberals and NDP in Ontario that was fashioned after the 1985 provincial election almost never happened at all. Now it feels as if it were all inevitable, a no-brainer. But it was a little dicier at the time, at least as I recall it almost a quarter of a century later. I guess I'll never learn if Bob Rae agrees.

The election was notable in a number of ways. Most unusually, all three leaders were running their first campaigns. Bland Bill Davis, Tory premier since 1971, had finally stepped down, leaving his right-wing successor Frank Miller a huge lead in the polls but also the poisoned chalice of the separate school issue. David Peterson, a conservative Liberal, had beaten Sheila Copps for the leadership and was mired in third place. The NDP was being led by a certain politically-obsessed Bob Rae, who had resigned his seat in Parliament for a forlorn, chimerical crack at becoming premier of Ontario. Under Rae, the NDP had revived to some extent from the doldrums into which Michael Cassidy had led it after what some nostalgically regarded as the party's Golden Age under Stephen Lewis in the 1970s.

It looked like an easy re-election bid for Miller, with the NDP returning to the promised land of Official Opposition into which Lewis had led them ever so briefly in the mid-1970s. But it's the glory of democracy and elections -- the very reason so many junkies can't resist them -- that anything can happen and sometimes does.

Miller's folksy, small-town conservative image, which he played to the hilt, combined with fierce internal Tory opposition to full funding of Catholic schools all the way to Grade 13 (a gratuitous measure foolishly  supported by both other parties), deep-sixed his campaign. Demonstrating how embarrassingly shallow democracy could also be, David Peterson stepped into a phone booth, exchanged his nerdy glasses for contact lenses,  donned a series of trade-mark red ties and emerged as an attractive, mod business guy cum politician who knew how the world really worked. Rae was submerged by forces grown swiftly out of control. Election day 1985 found that Miller had the most seats, barely, and Rae had the fewest, but held the balance of power -- PC 52, Liberal 48, NDP 25. The second and third parties had 21 seats more than the winners.

There was an even more important result. Peterson beat Miller in the popular vote -- 38 per cent to 37 per cent, with poor Bob Rae at 24 per cent, only marginally more than the hapless Cassidy and embarrassingly short of Lewis's three runs (27 per cent in 1971, 29 per cent in 1975, 28 per cent in 1977 -- those were the days, my friends).

Then the fun began. Both Miller and Peterson claimed the right to form a government. The third place loser, Bob Rae, was kingmaker. What to do?

The party was split. Some argued for a coalition with the Liberals, without checking if they would play ball. But the old Lewis camp, yearning still for the dreams Lewis had inspired, recalled -- perhaps a little too dreamily -- the constructive relationship Lewis had forged with Bill Davis in the first minority years of the mid-1970s. Under the circumstances, the same scenario was suddenly much beloved of the Conservatives as well, and soon Miller's emissaries could be found passionately wooing their NDP brothers. I myself was sought out by one Hugh Segal, with whom I had a cordial  association, who assured me "there was nothing you guys could ask that Frank wouldn't give" -- or words very close to these. And this explicitly included some pretty appealing labour legislation that the Tories normally would abhor.

The informal Lewis team was clearly disposed to buy the package. Then pure chance intervened. A Toronto Star reporter happened on Bob White at the airport. White, then president of the Canadian Auto Workers, was in the midst of his long glory years, not only the most prominent union leader in Canada, but also far and away the most admired and respected.  And there was no more loyal New Democrat in the country. The Star ran his position as a page one banner: White says only Liberals have the right to form a government. The big news out of the campaign, White insisted, was that Miller had lost the confidence of the electorate, blown his huge lead and actually earned a smaller vote than Peterson. Only the foibles of the electoral system gave him a four-seat lead.

With that, the air immediately went out of the Tory-NDP balloon. The Lewis contingent backed off; White's moral argument was unanswerable. Any outcome other than Peterson as premier of some kind of government was undemocratic and unthinkable. The only question was its nature and the role of the NDP. That's when some smart NDP fellows dreamt up the Liberal-NDP accord, believing the public would eventually thank the New Democrats for forcing progressive reforms on Peterson. Who knew the opposite would happen, that Peterson would win a sweeping victory only two years later thanks to the accord and that, accord-less, he himself would be swept away by Bob Rae three years after that. All because Bob White put democratic principles first.

Gerald Caplan was campaign manager for the Ontario New Democratic Party in the three elections fought in the 1970s

Special to The Globe and Mail

Coalitions in Canada

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