From the moment in 2001 when he declared his candidacy to lead the Progressive Conservatives, Ernie Eves sought to put ideological distance between himself and the policies of his predecessor, Mike Harris.
That strategy came to a sudden halt on May 16, when Eves unveiled a campaign platform with two central planks ripped directly from Harris's so-called common sense revolution: cut taxes and demonize teachers.
The promises - that the Tories would outlaw teachers' strikes and make a portion of personal mortgage payments tax deductible - marked a stunning reversal by Eves, who spent more than a year as premier trying to carve out a place for the Tories in the middle of Ontario's political spectrum.
Since his election, Eves had spent freely to quell the social unrest caused by years of Tory cost cutting: a controversial proposal to privatize Ontario's electrical utility was watered down and eventually dropped, with caps re-imposed on hydro rates. A respected educator was contracted to make an independent assessment of the public education system, and many of his spending recommendations were immediately implemented. Money was injected into the struggling health-care system, and guaranteed wait times for medical procedures were promised.
But Eves' shift to the middle was overshadowed by political blunders: he flip-flopped on a Harris-era plan to privatize the province's electrical utility; the first-ever budget presented outside the legislature led to charges of contempt for democratic process; the government seemed unprepared when blackouts loomed at the height of last summer's heat wave.
After a year in power, the Tories were at their lowest level of public support since Harris led them to victory in 1995 - hardly the conditions for the election call that Eves was so anxious to make this spring.
So he waited - not until June 2004, when his inherited mandate would force an election call, but well past the point where the jollification of the electorate would be within his control. Eves gambled on three points:
- that Ontario's over-subscribed power grid wouldn't collapse in the summer heat;
- that a health-care system pushed to its limit in Toronto by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome wouldn't collapse under the weight of a West Nile virus outbreak;
- that thousands of extra high-school graduates, created by the Tories' elimination of Grade 13, would find spots in the province's universities this fall.
Those gambles appear to have paid off. Unseasonably cool weather largely eliminated the West Nile threat. When the blackout arrived, it proved to be the fault of the Americans. And as for the double cohort? A well-timed whack of cash made that problem go away.
But his strategic move to the right last spring had tied the premier's hands, committing him to campaigning on the issues that brought the Tories to power in the first place. Perhaps with that swing to the right in mind, Eves even ventured into the family-values territory that Harris had avoided, declaring his personal oppostion to same-sex marriage.
By offering a completely different vision of how the province should be run, Mike Harris beat the Liberals and NDP decisively in two consecutive elections. Now, after almost two years of trying to distance himself from that legacy, Eves is betting that he can beat them again by retrenching at the right of the political spectrum.