Mike Harris is generally given credit for changing the face of politics, governing and campaigning in Canada. Much of this credit is deserved. Whether it has been beneficial for Ontario will certainly be the major theme of the next provincial election.
When Harris released his Common Sense Revolution in 1994, he was the leader of the third party in a three party province. While the governing New Democrats were facing enormous hostility with the public, the prime beneficiaries were the Liberals under Lyn McLeod. It was assumed that the Liberals were the government in waiting. The Progressive Conservatives looked like they were going nowhere. Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution changed all of that.
The Common Sense Revolution - or CSR as it came to be known - was the Conservatives' election manifesto, much like the very successful federal Liberal Red Book in 1993. The Red Book was very much in the mould of Canadian election platforms: try to please as many people as possible, and anger very few by not offering any targets for the opposition to aim toward. The CSR was completely different. It cleverly and purposefully divided Ontarians into two camps, and was a document aimed at provoking controversy. Among the now infamous pledges in the document were promises to:
- roll back welfare rates by 20 per cent
- introduce workfare for those on social assistance
- end affirmative action programs
- cut income tax by 30 per cent
- reduce the number of provincial politicians by 24 per cent
- reduce the number of school boards
- drastically change the funding formula for schools.
The platform was controversial, and quickly drew attention to itself as being out of touch with traditionally moderate red Tory Ontario. Two things stood out from the release of the CSR and the eventual election campaign a year later. First, the platform found a welcome home among many Ontarians, particularly those in the so-called "905" belt, or Golden Horseshoe around the city of Toronto. By the mid-'90s there was a sense that government had grown too big and taxes were too high. The targets of this wrath - teachers, politicians and those on welfare - were generally far enough removed from suburban voters to make the CSR quite attractive.
The second noticeable feature was not the CSR itself, but the anger with which the Ontario Conservatives, and Harris in particular, sold the Revolution. They wanted to form a government by running against the government. Harris built his reputation as a tax fighter, and successfully used the image. His victory in 1995 was very much a fight against government, and was populist in nature. It portrayed two sides, special interests that may have benefited from large government or union protection, and taxpayers.
The "fight" continued for most of Mike Harris's first term in office. Harris and his finance minister, Ernie Eves, were quick to blame all failures on past governments and take credit for all successes. Eves bragged about cutting nearly $2 billion of spending in his first months as finance minister. The tone of the Harris government was intentionally confrontational. Common phrases included:
- "10 lost years of Liberal-NDP rule"; and
- "We are not the government we are the people fixing government."
As a fighter, Mike Harris was unparalleled in Ontario. Rather than hurting the premier's image, scenes of labour strife and OPP officers in riot gear outside the legislature helped Harris.
The divisions created in Ontario lasted just beyond Harris's first term. He managed to win a second healthy majority in 1999, largely by playing up leadership. Once more, confrontation overtook policy debate. The new Liberal leader, Dalton McGuinty, was, according to Tory ads, "just not up to the job." Larger ridings and a shorter campaign assisted in the victory.
It was shortly after their re-election that Eves and Harris began to run into difficulties. The impact of their budget cuts was beginning to be felt by more and more Ontarians. While they still enjoyed support for the direction they were taking Ontario, the speed with which they moved alarmed more than just the "special interests" they liked to criticize. Cuts in health care and education were being felt not just in urban areas, but in the 905 belt and in rural Ontario, the heart and soul of Conservative support. The water crisis and tragedy in Walkerton, hit a year after their re-election. During the premier's first visit to Walkerton he expressed sympathy but did not apologize for the crisis. Instead he repeated his view that past governments should be held to account as much as his.
It was this response that nicely captured the problem with the Harris approach to government: he was better at fighting than he was at managing. Fighting worked well for the first term, but after his re-election the premier had to take ownership for his own government's record, and the public was less supportive of the record than he would have liked.
His decision to step down as premier in October 2001 allowed the PC's to revisit their style of governing. They could continue along the revolutionary path or begin to build bridges to those they had spent six years alienating. The leadership contest highlighted this debate. Despite his long association with Harris and the Common Sense Revolution, Eves ran as a moderate, arguing that confrontation and legislation do not build goodwill. The war, apparently, was over.
Unfortunately for Mr. Eves, his kindler, gentler approach did not work. The diehard Conservative supporters were angry that the revolution was over and the swing vote, those who voted Conservative the last two elections, still associated him with the huge cuts in government and the problems in Ontario's health care and education systems. In changing styles, Eves also lost any hope of maintaining some form of populist appeal. For many, it looked like Eves wanted to be premier, simply to be premier. He no longer wanted to fix government, he wanted to be the government. Support for both Eves and the Conservatives began to plummet.
It is hardly surprising then that The Road Ahead - the title of the Conservatives re-election platform - has returned to the vocabulary of a revolution. Teachers' strikes will be illegal and voluntary work by teachers will be mandatory. There will be a move to limit the campaign contributions of unions to the political process. Ontarians on welfare will not be allowed to sponsor immigrants, and immigrants and refugees will no longer be entitled to legal aid. If this comes across as tough, it is meant to. The Conservatives have met success when they have fought, and have faced difficulties when they have tried to manage.
For the Liberals and the NDP, the trick will be to stay on their own message. They will point to the management record of the Conservative government, including recent indications that the government's fiscal picture is not as strong as initially forecast. They will try to persuade voters that the Tories are not to be trusted in fixing the problems they created. They will have to be very careful not to get into a fight with the Conservatives. For nobody is better at fighting than revolutionaries.