Jonathan Malloy is professor and chair, Department of Political Science, Carleton University.
The Ontario New Democratic Party is flying high in the polls and has a solid chance of forming a government. The situation is very similar to 1990, the one previous time the NDP won power in Ontario. Back then, voters were also very unhappy with the two major choices – so desperately unhappy that they were willing to turn to the NDP. And both today, and in 1990, there’s little evidence of direct enthusiasm for the NDP. A NDP victory on June 7 will be a protest against the other parties, not an endorsement of its platform.
This, of course, makes us think about the NDP government that was elected in 1990, led by Bob Rae. Yet the Rae government is obscured in Ontario history. The party itself never speaks of it and mostly pretends it never happened. The obvious reason is that Mr. Rae himself later left the party for the Liberals, making the name “Rae” unspeakable in New Democrat ranks forever.
But the Rae government carries a more general stigma. In popular lore it is seen as a disaster of biblical proportions, with deep economic recession and massive deficits. But the reality is more complicated. The Rae government was not very successful, but it was by no means as awful as its reputation. It governed under terrible economic conditions that afflicted every other North American government; the Brian Mulroney federal government had its own uncontrollable deficit, while in the United States the once incredibly popular George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992 over the poor economy. It’s silly to suggest the Rae government was somehow exceptional in the general fiscal and economic floundering of the early 1990s.
The true sin of the Rae government was its total lack of preparation to assume power. It campaigned on a platform of unrealistic promises, had not devoted any thought to actually running the province, and throughout its term was wracked by internal debates about how to use this miraculous opportunity. Yet it partly overcame even this.
In many ways there were two Rae governments; one from 1990 to about 1993 (which we’ll call Rae 1), and another from 1993-95 (Rae 2). Rae 1 was deeply amateurish and reactive and is the government most people outside the NDP remember. Rae 2 was more disciplined and tried to select priorities. But that tore the party apart, making it the government most remembered inside the NDP.
Stories abound of the chaotic amateurism of Rae 1. All governments make rookie mistakes, but none was more profoundly unprepared for the discipline of power, and many New Democrats found it difficult to shift from an opposition mentality of protesting decisions to actually making the decisions. The first NDP budget opened the spending floodgates, with Treasurer Floyd Laughren famously saying “we had a choice to make this year. To fight the deficit or fight the recession. We are proud to be fighting the recession.” This financial profligacy sealed the reputation of the Rae government to this day.
But by 1993, the amateurism was mostly gone and a more disciplined and focused Rae 2 government took hold, focusing now on the deficit. This led to the “Social Contract,” an innovative but explosive solution. It cut government spending by imposing unpaid days off, avoiding layoffs or straight pay cuts. But this required reopening collective agreements, which poisoned the NDP-union relationship for decades and is the greatest reason the party shall never speak of the Rae years. Yet Mr. Rae also got little credit from deficit hawks and the business community for this and other tough decisions. Rae 1 had set the tone forever.
In some ways the Rae government was just ahead of its time. It heavily promoted gender equality – the representation of women in cabinet leaped from 15 per cent to 44 per cent. It introduced legislation for same-sex rights (defeated in part by dissent among its own backbench.) Many other policies that raised eyebrows and bitter opposition at the time are now accepted across Ontario.
I worked on the absolute lowest rungs of the Rae government 25 years ago as a non-partisan intern, and while as a professor I do not support any political party, I have never felt it got a fair shake in history. It was a disaster in many ways, but not for its ideas – rather for its ridiculously unrealistic platform and lack of preparation for assuming power on a protest vote. The same conditions apply to the NDP in 2018, which, just like in 1990, has promised the moon to voters and shows little aptitude for the discipline of power. Rae 2 showed that the NDP can learn and adapt to power. But right now the NDP is set up to repeat all the mistakes of Rae 1.