OTTAWA David Peterson is entitled to cherish his own bad memories, but he's got the wrong end of the stick in his analysis of the Ontario election campaign.The former Liberal premier said last week that the ''stench of death'' around the current Progressive Conservative campaign reminded him of his own disastrous re-election bid in 1990 in the face of public anger about pretty well everything.
Now, while it's true that the Conservatives are not doing well these days, the more apt comparison is with the 1985 election.
The Tories were then led by Frank Miller, a former treasurer who had succeeded a high-profile leader and who was trying to extend his party's remarkable 42-year grip on office. He was a right-winger -- a supply-sider before that became fashionable -- but his handlers tried to hide this and by election day, no one was really sure what he stood for.
Mr. Peterson, a reformed geek, was leading the Liberals. He promised hesitant voters who knew nothing but Tory rule that they could reject Mr. Miller and the sky wouldn't fall. In the end, Mr. Peterson became premier (even though the Conservatives claimed more seats) by doing a deal with the New Democratic Party. The page was turned very hesitantly, but it was turned.
There is a faint echo this autumn of those events of 18 years ago with Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty in the starring roles. Mr. McGuinty is attempting to capitalize on the public desire for renewal with a campaign nakedly based on a "choose change" slogan. Mr. Eves is trying to extend Tory rule, but he is leaving many loyal party members to wonder what he believes in.
The stark difference this time is that Ontario voters realize that changing governments is no harder than changing the sheets. This may explain why Mr. McGuinty is subjected to so little scrutiny.
Eight days before voting day, the public seems willing to give the Liberals something of a blank cheque. The polls show that only three in 10 voters think Mr. McGuinty would make the best premier yet his party enjoys a double-digit lead over the Conservatives. Even better for Mr. McGuinty, six out of 10 voters say it's time for a change of government. Added up, the numbers suggest a bland, perhaps blind, belief that anything is better than giving the Tories another mandate.
This enrages many Conservatives, who are frustrated at the rough ride given Mr. Eves since he became Premier 17 months ago. They are convinced that reporters must be hoarding Liberal gold in their bank accounts (although the reason for the disparity in treatment of the two leaders is that Mr. Eves controls the levers of a $70-billion government and Mr. McGuinty doesn't).
There are signs, however, that this benign treatment is changing now that a Liberal victory on Oct. 2 looks more likely. The party's campaign platform is increasingly being prodded for soft spots. The questioning that Mr. McGuinty faced yesterday during campaign stops in Toronto, Peterborough and Ottawa was much more consistently aggressive than what he faced during the first three weeks of the campaign. His answers also seemed more evasive.
The focus is mostly on his fiscal plan and whether he has a way to deal with any budget deficit he might be saddled with and, indeed, whether he would drive Ontario deeper into the red with his spending plans. The battle over numbers is deeply baffling to most outsiders.
Under pressure, Mr. McGuinty invariably pleads that he has "a responsible, affordable plan" but won't be pushed further. His aides say they have all the fiscal angles covered and that it's pointless to get into a public fray that only accountants with very limited social lives could enjoy.
As a result, casual consumers of political news may glimpse only a Dalton McGuinty who looks like he's avoiding scrutiny. The question is whether they will care. Is the spirit of 1985 alive again?