Harris' Flawed Legacy

I’m pleased at the level of diversity that has gathered in the Blogging Alliance of Non-Partisan Canadians (now 179 members and still going strong). Surfing through the various sites is sure to challenge your perceptions and make you think, even if you strongly disagree with what’s written (or, often, because you strongly disagree with what’s written).

Take this post by Sandy Crux of the blog Crux of the Matter. I admire her passion, but I have to say that I don’t share her sentiments below.

Love him or hate him, Mike Harris won two consecutive conservative majority governments. And, I have no doubt that had he not stepped down when he did, he would have won a third. So, it is puzzling, that since more people liked Harris than disliked him, why the Ontario Liberals have resorted to trying to demonize John Tory by suggesting he is really Harris in sheep’s clothing. (emphasis mine)

The sentence I emphasized illustrates to me the tendency of some Conservatives in Ontario to blame Ernie Eves rather than Mike Harris for their loss in 2003. Fair enough; Eves was in charge at the time and if he was unable to make his party resonate with voters again the ultimate responsibility lies with him. But in my opinion, I consider the suggestion that Harris would have succeeded where Eves had failed, simply by virtue of the fact that he was Mike Harris, somewhat surprising. It certainly doesn’t jive with my recollection of events.

In 2003, a vote against Ernie Eves was also a vote against Mike Harris. For the first six years of the Harris government, the two were synonymous in the eyes of Ontarians. Harris may have been the face of the Common Sense Conservatives, but Ernie Eves as Finance Minister was its tool-wielding hands. It was Eves who brought in the tax cuts, and the budgets that launched the tremendous and jarring revision of Ontario’s public and social services in the latter part of the 1990s. And the two men certainly got along a lot better than the federal PM-FM duo of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

You could tell that support for the Mike Harris government was cratering as early as 2001. Two by-elections in particular suggested that the bloom was off Mike Harris’ rose. The riding of Vaughan-King-Aurora, previously held by the late Minister of Transportation Al Palladini, fell to Liberal Greg Sorbara in a byelection on June 28, 2001. It had been a hard fought battle. I visited the riding during the thick of the campaign, and the Conservatives had plastered it with signs and posters, promoting Joyce Frustaglio (a popular local politician) as their “Mike Harris Candidate”. Despite this, Sorbara won in a blow out, taking 61% of the vote to Joyce’s 34%.

The loss of that critical 905-belt riding had to be alarming, given this area was providing the bulk of the Conservatives electoral strength, but the subsequent byelection in Beaches-East York was specifically cited by observers close to Mike Harris as a reason he privately gave for his departure the following year. People remember the bitter fight between the Liberals and the NDP in that riding as Bob Hunter squared off against Michael Prue, but Harris was still said to be disappointed that the Conservative candidate in the riding could only muster 10% of the vote. The tide was turning. Voters may have rewarded Mike Harris with a second term (although some would argue that Dalton McGuinty lost the 1999 election more than Harris had won it), but it was looking less and less likely that they’d reward him with a third. His legacy was flawed.

In my opinion, the flawed legacy of the Harris government can be summed up in three points: a deliberately confrontational attitude to the province’s public workers, especially teachers and nurses; a contempt for all government spending, including such necessary expenditures as public transportation and municipal infrastructure, and most importantly the mistaken notion that government was easy, and that the Common Sense Revolution could be implemented rapidly without nasty side-effects. My sense was, by 2001, Ontarians knew this. The Harris government as much as acknowledged this, as it was forced to backtrack on some of its policies as some of the nasty side-effects became known.

The Harris government took power in 1995 with revolutionary vigour, and brought forward a cabinet of iconoclasts whose very presence seemed designed to express contempt for the very government services they were supposed to administer. Harris’ first Minister of Education was John Snobelen, a high school drop out. Harris first Minister of Transportation was Al Palladini, a car salesman. I was frankly surprised that he didn’t assign a chain smoker to be Minister of Health.

What followed was hardly surprising, including a province-wide teachers’ strike that almost scrubbed an entire school year. The voters’ sympathies initially tended to follow party lines, but even a number of centre-right observers had to admit that Harris wasn’t giving the public sector workers any reason to negotiate. The Toronto Sun editorial board was forced to admit, late in the strike, that “the teachers had made their point” and that some of Harris’ policies amounted to strong cuts to education that potentially harmed students as much as the teachers’ strike was doing. The Liberals were certainly able to make hay over the inadequacies of the revised education funding formula that were soon revealed after the Conservatives brought it in. (I talk more about Harris’ education legacy here).

It’s been noted that Mike Harris increased health spending while he was in power, and that is true. Some could say that he had little choice. But what isn’t noted was that, in his first two years in power, Harris closed hospitals, eliminated beds, and fired nurses, and tried to solve a doctor shortage by hiring cheaper “nurse-practitioners” — something the Common Sense Revolution said wouldn’t happen — to try and save money ahead of his 30% provincial income tax cut. The fact that his government was forced to rehire many of those nurses — at times for more money than they had been earning when they had been made redundant — is as much to his later credit as it is an acknowledgement of his earlier foolishness

Teachers, nurses, native protesters — the pattern started forming in the minds of Ontarians. When he initially snubbed the Dionne Quintuplets’ requests for compensation, it played right into that mantra: that he was a cold-hearted bastard. Sometimes you need a cold-hearted bastard to make certain decisions, but when a leader is one the whole time, the province becomes a less pleasant place in which to live. At least, that was the message that was growing in the minds of Ontarians.

Then there was the decision in February 1996 to pull the provincial government out of public transit funding altogether, putting a substantial burden on municipal property taxpayers in general (effectively nullifying the benefits of Harris’ 30% provincial income tax cut), and on the economy of the Greater Toronto Area in particular. Harris himself as much as acknowledged this as a mistake five years later, when he restored limited provincial funding for transit infrastructure.

I will give Harris substantial credit for acknowledging his mistakes, both in rehiring the nurses and in restoring funding to public transportation. Indeed, his decision to take back GO Transit and return the province to the public transit funding table is, to my mind, the shrewdest political move of his premiership. Not only did it help stabilize the public transit picture in the early part of this decade (though it wasn’t nearly enough to meet current demands or catch up on what had been lost), it told the federal government (who had been tut-tutting Harris’ neglect of public transportation and was contemplating a new deal for Canadian cities) to put up or shut up. After much hemming and hawing, the federal government put up… sort of.

Unlike some commentators, I don’t think that Harris was the devil. I admired the courage of his convictions and a general sense that he was trying to do the right thing (and his honest surprise that his actions weren’t benefitting everyone). There were good ministers in cabinet, Elizabeth Witmer (my MPP) key among them(2). Witmer in particular cleaned up the messes that Harris’ initial ministers left behind in Health and the Environment. But all of this doesn’t negate the worst decision the Harris government made, which remains a large and lasting legacy: the sale of Highway 407. This flawed decision illustrates the mistaken belief that Harris seemed to have that government was easy, and cuts could be made without consequences.

The sale of Highway 407 was not in itself wrong. Even though I believe that provincial taxpayers were short-changed on the deal, the sale still resulted in the completion of critical links along the route at minimal cost to taxpayers(1). The big problem was what the Harris government did with the funds raised.

As the sale took place, a few months before the 1999 provincial election, the money raised ($3.1 billion) was placed into general revenues. As a result, the Harris government was able to claim that they had balanced the budget after just four years in power, and after inheriting a “massive fiscal mess” from the previous Rae administration.

Unfortunately it is a simple fact of accounting that you should not use the funds raised through the sale of capital investments as operating revenue. That’s a very bad credit move (though unfortunately not an uncommon one), as such revenues simply aren’t sustainable. Many politicians likened this to selling the refrigerator to pay for food. The reduction in the deficit was a phantom, and Ontario’s fiscal situation deteriorated as the economy slowed. The Liberals feigned outrage when they announced that the outgoing Eves government had left behind a “hidden” $5.6 billion deficit in 2003, but the fact remains that Ontario’s financial picture was shaky throughout the Harris years, in spite of the significant provincial tax cuts that was supposed to spark our economy and magically fill our treasury again.

After their second election, the best that Mike Harris could hope for was to campaign on the fact that he was perceived to have kept his promises. That was all fine and good, but the province was still having difficulties, and Ontarians were asking “what now?” Harris may have delivered a 30% cut in provincial income taxes, but he had failed to eliminate the deficit. He had polarized the province, and was still presiding over a strained public education and health care system. Our public transit networks and other municipal infrastructure needed billions of dollars of investment that the municipalities simply did not have. We had the Ipperwash inquiry suggesting to Ontarians that the government’s confrontational attitude was counterproductive, and we had the Walkerton Inquiry making Ontarians well aware of the dangers of a lack of proper oversight. What was Harris to do to try and fix these problems? Problems that the 30% cut in provincial income taxes hadn’t solved, and which might have even contributed to? What was the solution? More tax cuts?

That’s what Ernie Eves proposed, rather cynically campaigning on a few tax measures (such as mortgage interest tax deductibility and a school voucher program) that made things better for the party’s core supporters but left anybody else out in the cold. The Rae government was now more than six years gone and thus no longer a source of blame. So, there was a sense, both in 2003, just as it had been the year Harris departed, that the Conservative government had run out of ideas and, worse, that the ideas proposed in 1995 may have contributed to the fractious, polarized and unstable political and economic situation Ontarians now found themselves in. The Tories were toast in the City of Toronto proper, and in the North, and as the Vaughan-King-Aurora byelection showed, the tide was rapidly turning across the 905 belt.

For this reason I have no doubt that Harris would have lost his government’s third election had he contested it. He might have ended up limiting the damage (you can more effectively defend your legacy if you actually stick around and defend it), but in 2003, the Common Sense Revolution now represented the old guard, something tried and found wanting. Ontarians were in the mood for a new direction. Eves didn’t represent that. So they held their nose and voted for McGuinty.


  1. When I say that the sections of the 407 completed since the sale in 1999 were completed without significant taxpayer investment, it should be noted that a lot of the cost of the highway occurred in the 1970s. The total cost of the highway that opened in 1997 was $1.6 billion, but the amount of money spent in the 1970s to acquire the land that the highway ran along amounts to over $100 billion(3). This is not Harris fault, although the decision to issue a 99 year lease on the highway for a paltry $3.1 billion is.
  2. Despite my concerns about a car salesman being Minister of Transportation, and despite spearheading the disastrous policy of eliminating all provincial funding for public transportation, I have to say that I liked the late Al Palladini and that I admired his performance as Minister of Transportation. Unlike John Snobelen, he didn’t poison the waters talking about the need to create “a useful crisis” to instigate reforms, and Palladini went after drunk drivers and truck safety with a vigour that I’ve not seen in many a minister. I think we can honestly say that our roads are somewhat safer today due to Al.
  3. You heard me: $100 billion. This information comes straight from Hansard. On October 21, 1998, a debate on the Highway 407 Act had MPP Mr E.J. Douglas Rollins (Quinte) speaking in support of the sale, saying:

    How many dollars do we have invested in the 407 at the present time? As of March 31, the taxpayers of Ontario have somewhere around $104 billion. If we have that $104 billion invested in capital and if we can take that back from the private sector, sell it and put those dollars back in, we’ll make one more promise in the Common Sense Revolution when we sell that asset. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we can pay down that debt we’ve inherited. That’s very important, not only to our generation and the commitment we made in the Common Sense Revolution but to the commitment we as a government have made to the people of Ontario. As long as we have that kind of commitment and keep on our goal, we’ll do a better job.

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