Harmonizing sales taxes takes guts.
Premiers Dalton McGuinty and Gordon Campbell, along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, deserve credit for doing what's right instead of what is popular.
But my favourite example of political courage isn't about taxes or trade or foreign policy.
It's about milk.
In the 1930s, the most powerful lobby in Ontario was the farmers.
Dairy farmers were four-square against mandatory pasteurization of their product to protect against bovine tuberculosis. They argued the science was unproven, but feared the cost of new machinery. No politician would dare cross the farmers, particularly one like Premier Mitch Hepburn who relied on farm votes in Southwestern Ontario for his majority.
Just before the Legislature resumed in 1937, Hepburn accepted the invitation of Dr. Alan Brown, the chief pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children, to tour the hospital.
Hepburn confronted two long rows of children infected with the wasting disease. Tuberculosis attacked the lymph nodes and lungs. It leaves the patient weak, feverish, coughing and wasting away. The effect on adults is terrible. In children, the ravages are horrifying and potentially deadly.
The pediatrician informed the Premier that these were victims of raw milk, children who would not be there if the government would act.
"Your government has the power - if it wishes to use it - to empty hospital wards like these," Dr. Brown whispered.
"Done," Hepburn is said to have replied.
The result was legislation to make pasteurization mandatory, and a firestorm that threatened to split Hepburn's caucus and Cabinet.
Even Hepburn's own riding of Elgin was in revolt. In early 1938, Hepburn entertained a delegation of farmers enthusiastically opposed to pasteurization. They cited the cost, and questioned evidence that untreated milk caused the disease.
According to his biography, Hepburn recognized one of the men demanding he stop pasteurization.
"How many children do you have?"
"I have five," replied the surprised farmer.
"Didn't you have seven?"
"Yes, but two died."
"They died of bovine tuberculosis, didn't they? They drank milk from your own cows and died?" Hepburn persisted angrily.
"You came here today to protest against the pasteurization of milk. You have already lost two children to bovine tuberculosis, but that doesn't prevent you from coming here to ask this Government to withdraw its bill and leave your children and other children open to the threat of death. What kind of man are you?"
The opposition didn't quiet, despite Hepburn's steel. But the Premier persisted and it became his proudest accomplishment.
"I had to take the hard way, not the popular way," Hepburn told farmers in his own riding after the bill was passed, "and I am going to live to see the day when the children of Ontario will be safe from the dangers of bovine tuberculosis."
By 1941, cases of tuberculosis had dropped by 45 per cent, while typhoid was down 50 per cent.
Lives were saved by Hepburn's courage.
When we think of politicians we admire, it tends to be for when they demonstrated guts.
Laurier was successful because of his "sunny ways" but it was his principled stand on reciprocity, minority rights and conscription that earned history's respect.
Pearson won the Nobel Prize, but it was the fight over a flag for Canada that made him great.
Trudeaumania was cute, but crushing the FLQ, defeating the separatists and repatriating the Constitution are Trudeau's legacy.
Mulroney's smarm leaves many cold, but his courage on free trade is undeniable.
The Clarity Act and staying out of Iraq were the two greatest - and toughest - decisions of Jean Chrétien's career.
Too many politicians want to be loved, when what they should seek is respect.
Which brings me to the harmonized sales tax.
Nothing could be less popular than a higher tax on gasoline, haircuts, new homes and chocolate bars.
It is visible. They break it out for you at the bottom of your receipt.
It is omnipresent. Income tax you pay just once a year, but sales tax a dozen times a day.
It is broad. You pay it on hundreds of items with just a few exemptions.
As politics goes, harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the federal GST is climbing a waterfall with a fifty pound anchor around your waist.
But we don't elect our leaders to be factotums who tally up polls and stick their finger in the wind to make decisions.
We elect leaders to lead.
As Burke famous stated, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
The HST is undeniably good policy.
It creates jobs. It would create enough jobs to basically cut the current unemployment rate by more than half in ten years.
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