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David Robert Peterson
The Hon. David Peterson
20th Premier of Ontario
June 26, 1985 – October 01, 1990
Preceded by Frank Miller
Succeeded by Bob Rae
Born December 28, 1943 (1943-12-28) (age 63)
Political party Liberal
Spouse Shelley Peterson
Religion United Church
David Robert Peterson, PC (born December 28, 1943 in Toronto, Ontario) was the twentieth Premier of the Province of Ontario, Canada, from June 26, 1985 to October 1, 1990. He was the first Liberal premier of Ontario in 42 years.
Peterson is married to actress Shelley Peterson, and is the younger brother of Jim Peterson, formerly a federal Liberal MP and cabinet minister. Both his sister-in-law Deb Matthews and Tim Peterson, a third brother, were elected to the Ontario legislature in the 2003 provincial election.
1 Education and early career
2 Early political career
3 Liberal leader
4.1 Warning Signs
7 After politics
8 Honorary Degrees
Education and early career
David Peterson earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Western Ontario and his LL.B from the University of Toronto. He was called to the bar in 1969. Despite his legal background, most of Peterson’s early career was spent in the world of private enterprise. At the age of twenty-six, he became president of C.M. Peterson Company Limited, a wholesale electronics firm founded by his father, and joined the Chamber of Commerce’s Young Presidents Club in the same period.
Early political career
Peterson was first elected as the Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament for London Centre in the 1975 provincial election. Less than one year later, he campaigned for the leadership of the party following Robert Nixon’s resignation. Despite his inexperience, Peterson nevertheless came within 45 votes of defeating Stuart Smith on the third and final ballot of a delegated convention held on January 25, 1976. Smith represented the left-wing of the party, while Peterson was seen as representing its right-wing. Some blamed Peterson’s loss on the banal delivery of his convention speech.
Peterson was re-elected in the provincial elections of 1977 and 1981, and ran for the Liberal leadership a second time after Smith’s resignation in 1982; Smith had managed to maintain the party’s standing in the legislature but was unable to make gains in both elections. Again considered to be on the right of the party, he defeated the more left-leaning Sheila Copps on the second ballot of a convention vote, held on February 21, 1982. One of his most prominent organizers during this period was Keith Davey.
Peterson was not initially regarded as a strong challenger to the Progressive Conservative government of Bill Davis. The Liberals lost two seats to the NDP in late 1984 by-elections, and another caucus member defected to the Progressive Conservatives that same year, claiming that Peterson was an ineffective leader. Polling in late 1984 showed Peterson’s Liberals in third place, behind the Progressive Conservatives and Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party.
Peterson’s fortunes improved when Davis retired as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in early 1985. His successor, Frank Miller, took the party further to the right, and was unable to convince the electorate of his leadership abilities. Though Miller’s Tories began the election in 1985 with a significant lead, Peterson’s Liberals gradually increased their support throughout the campaign. To the surprise of many, Peterson won a narrow plurality of the popular vote. However, at the time rural areas were still slightly overrepresented in the Legislative Assembly. As a result, the Progressive Conservatives won 52 seats and the Liberals 48. Peterson, however, did succeed reducing the PC party to a minority government.
The Ontario New Democratic Party, with 25 seats, held the balance of power. Following the election, NDP leader Bob Rae entered negotiations with both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, seeking a formal accord in which the NDP would pledge not to defeat the government in return for the passage of certain progressive legislation. Miller’s Tories attempted to win the NDP’s support, but were unable to agree to Rae’s terms. Negotiations with the Liberals were more fruitiful, and the two parties signed an accord allowing the Liberals to govern for a two-year period. (The NDP did not receive any cabinet seats, and the accord was not a formal coalition.)
The Liberals and NDP defeated Miller’s government on June 18, 1985 on a motion of no confidence, and Peterson was sworn in as Premier of Ontario eight days later. After the expiration of the Liberal-NDP Accord in 1987, the Liberals called another provincial election, and won the second-largest majority government in Ontario’s history, taking 95 seats out of 130.
Peterson’s government introduced several pieces of progressive legislation. It eliminated “extra billing” by doctors, brought in pay equity provisions, and reformed the province’s rent review and labour negotiation laws. His government also brought in pension reform, expanded housing construction, and resolved a long-standing provincial controversy by extended full funding to Catholic secondary schools. Peterson was also a vocal opponent of free trade with the United States in 1988. His administration was less activist in its later years, though it still introduced progressive measures on environmental protection, eliminated health insurance premiums, and brought in no-fault automobile insurance for the province.
The Peterson administration also developed a reputation for fiscal prudence, under the management of Treasurer Robert Nixon. The Liberal government was able to introduce a balanced budget for 1989-90 following several years of deficit spending in Ontario, at a time when deficit spending was commonplace in most of North America.
Peterson remained personally popular during his time in power, and some spoke of him as a future Prime Minister of Canada. Peterson improved his public speaking abilities in the early 1980s, and projected the image of an active, charismatic figure when in office. Some believed his image was perfectly suited to the young, urban professional demographic of the 1980s.
Both Peterson and his government were still popular at the beginning of 1990. The end of his career in politics came suddenly, and was the result of several factors.
The first was Peterson’s prominent role in creating and promoting the “Meech Lake” constitutional accord. While initially popular, this attempt at revising Canada’s constitution proved extremely divisive in most of English-speaking Canada. Many believed that it gave too many concessions to Quebec, while others believed that it weakened the federal government’s authority in relation to the provinces. Peterson’s continued support for the accord, in the face of increased opposition, damaged his personal popularity in Ontario. The accord was not endorsed by Manitoba and Newfoundland, and did not pass.
The second reason for Peterson’s downfall was the Patti Starr scandal. Starr, a prominent Liberal fundraiser, was found to have improperly diverted money from land-development and charitable organizations to the provincial Liberal Party. She was eventually sentenced to six months jail time. Although no-one in Peterson’s administration was accused of criminal activity, the scandal eroded public confidence in the integrity of the ministry.
The third reason was the weakening North American economy. Productivity levels were falling throughout the United States and Canada during this period, and were likely worsened in Ontario and other jurisdictions by the recent passage of a Free Trade Accord involving the two countries. While there was little that Peterson, or any other Ontario Premier, could have done to prevent this downturn, it weakened his government’s reputation for fiscal competence. (Indeed, the government’s projected surplus budget for 1990-91 ultimately yielded a deficit of at least three billion dollars.)
Notwithstanding all of this, Peterson’s Liberal Party still retained a comfortable lead over the Progressive Conservatives and NDP in mid-1990 public opinion polls. As a result, Peterson decided to call an snap election, less than three years into his mandate. This proved to be his greatest mistake.
Many voters saw the early election as a mark of arrogance, and a sign that Peterson’s Liberals had become detached from the electorate. There was no defining issue behind the campaign, and many believed that Peterson was simply trying to win re-election before the economic downturn reached its worst phase. Some Liberal cabinet ministers, most notably Greg Sorbara & Jim Bradley, were strongly opposed to the early election call. Sean Conway, a member of Peterson’s inner circle, would later acknowledge that most backbench MPPs also opposed the timing of the campaign.
At the time the writ was dropped, the Liberals stood at 50% support in the polls. Peterson himself had a 54% approval rating. However, his luck turned immediately upon calling the election. One of the seminal moments in the campaign was at a press conference called to announce the forthcoming election. It was soon interrupted by Greenpeace activist Gord Perks arrived with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm, with a tape recorder inside playing a pre-recorded list of broken Liberal environmental promises. David Peterson sat in front of the room full of reporters, awkwardly silent and clearly uncomfortable.
Disappointed by high expectations, groups representing several interests (such as teachers, doctors, and environmentalists), came out against Peterson on television, radio, in print, and at Liberal campaign events. Protesters would follow the Premier throughout the campaign, and often received considerable media coverage . The media reported the election call as cynical, and the party appeared desperate when they unexpectedly proposed to cut the provincial sales tax halfway through the campaign.
It also did not help that the provincial election campaign was being run in the aftermath of the constitutional reform fiasco of Brian Mulroney’s federal government, with which Peterson had significant media exposure in association with the other first ministers. Peterson’s association with divisive failure and rejection in a national referendum was not further highlighted by the media, but the association was fresh, invoked strong feelings, and could not have been a positive factor.
The campaign also took place at a time when the federal NDP was performing well in the polls. In the federal election two years earlier, the federal NDP won 44 seats, its most ever. This trend carried over to the provincial level; the provincial NDP under Rae ran a strong campaign and saw its fortunes gradually increase as election day approached. Some voters believed that Peterson deserved to be reduced to a minority government, while others believed the NDP should be given a chance to govern. On September 5, 1990, the NDP scored one of the greatest upsets in Canadian political history, taking 74 seats for a strong majority government. While the NDP only outpolled the Liberals by a narrow six-point margin, they managed to unseat many Liberal incumbents in the Greater Toronto Area. Due to a quirk in the first-past-the-post system, this decimated the Liberal caucus. The Liberals suffered their worst defeat ever, falling from 95 seats to 36; the 59-seat loss surpassed the 48-seat loss in 1943 that began the Tories’ long rule over the province. This was also the second-worst defeat for a governing party in Ontario.
Peterson even lost his own seat, having been resoundingly defeated by NDP candidate Marion Boyd in London Centre by over 8,200 votes. It is almost unheard of for a provincial premier to be unseated in his own riding. The loss ended Peterson’s political career. He announced his resignation as Liberal leader on the night of the election, and formally resigned as premier on October 1, 1990.
In 1992, Peterson endorsed former Minister of Health Murray Elston as the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. Elston was narrowly defeated, in part because many party delegates saw him as a throwback to the Peterson years.
Peterson’s 1985 election victory was part of a trend in the improvement of Liberal Party fortunes in Canada. Prior to that Ontario election, the future of the Liberal Party looked bleak. They governed in no province, and, federally, were down to 40 seats. In some provinces, the Liberals had been completely wiped from both federal and provincial representation in the legislatures. Peterson’s surprise victory is regarded by many as the start of the party’s comeback. (Not all provincial Liberal parties are aligned with the federal party, but even those that are not share a similar support base).
Peterson’s successor Bob Rae took power during the period of time that would see one of the worst recessions in Canadian history since the 1930s, and it contributed heavily to the NDP’s decimation in 1995. Rae has since left the NDP and joined the Liberal party.
David Peterson was the founding chairman of the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association, and was a member of Toronto’s Olympics Bid Committee. Since leaving politics, he has been a professor at York University in Toronto, a senior partner and chairman of the Toronto law firm Cassels, Brock & Blackwell, and has been director or member of several charitable, cultural, and environmental organizations. He is or has been a member on several corporate boards, being particularly associated with the Rogers family of businesses. In his legal practice he provides international advice to a wide range of clients about public policy issues and government affairs in Canada.
In 1999, Peterson found himself at the center of controversy due to his membership on the board of YBM Magnex, a firm which was discovered to have links to the Russian mafia. Peterson maintained that he was unaware of illegal activities at the company, and referred to the accusations against him as “guilt by association”. A subsequent investigation by the Ontario Securities Commission found that Peterson’s actions met “the legal test of due diligence”, but expressed disappointment that he had not shown more leadership on the board. A 2004 report from the Globe and Mail newspaper notes that Peterson was chastened by this experience, and has become “a cautious and more conscientious director” since this time.
Since 2003, Peterson has been contracted by the federal government to be its Chief Negotiator, in talks with the government of the Northwest Territories and Aboriginal leaders, to transfer federal powers over lands and resources to the territory. Mr. Peterson has been quoted as noting this as an opportunity to try again and play a part in nation-building.
Peterson has continued over the years as a powerful organizer and fundraiser for the federal and Ontario provincial Liberals. In May 2005, he played the central role in helping Belinda Stronach, a federal Conservative MP, to cross the floor to the ruling Liberal Party, days before a crucial confidence motion on the federal budget of Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government. The defection proved critical to the survival of Martin’s government, with the final outcome of the budget vote 153-152 in favour of the government. After Martin resigned the party leadership in the wake of the Liberals defeat in the 2006 election, Peterson planned to support former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna who chose ultimately not to run. Peterson then backed Michael Ignatieff, criticizing former political opponent Bob Rae’s entry into the race due to the latter’s record succeeding Peterson as provincial premier. Peterson insisted he did not hold a personal grudge against Rae. 
Peterson became Chancellor of the University of Toronto effective July 1, 2006. The appointment is a three-year term.
David Peterson was given an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Western Ontario on June 15, 2006.
Preceded by Vivienne Poy Chancellor of the University of Toronto 2006– Succeeded by Incumbent
Preceded by Frank Miller Premier of Ontario 1985–1990 Succeeded by Bob Rae
Preceded by Stuart Smith Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party 1982–1990 Succeeded by Robert Nixon
Preceded by Robert Nixon Leader of the Opposition in the Ontario Legislature 1982–1985 Succeeded by Frank Miller